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ST. ALBERT A 16% wage gap between the support workers at two St. Albert school districts is threatening to lead to a strike at the St. Albert Protestant School Division.

Employees of the Protestant School board, represented by CUPE Local 1099, have asked the mediator to write out of the dispute, and will hold a strike vote after a fourteen day cooling off period has expired.

Joanne Poplett, President of CUPE Local 1099, says the union is taking this action because the Protestant School Division is in danger of losing staff to the Catholic board, where wages average 15.9% higher. Poplett says many of her members are among the lowest paid in Alberta.

With that kind of wage difference, its not hard to go across the street to a Catholic school, or down the road to Edmonton and get paid more, said Poplett. And when staff leave, the whole school district suffers.

Poplett says CUPE has been negotiating with the School Board for over a year, but the board refuses to budge on the equity issue. At one point, they insisted we stop talking about the subject. Poplett says school officials are now refusing to bargain with the union at all.

We are always willing to bargain, even when our positions are miles apart, said Poplett. We know a school strike is a hardship to students and parents, so we want to make every effort to reach a settlement.

But if they refuse to talk, we have little option but to take a strike vote.

Mary Lou Simms, a parent of a special needs student, says she supports the employees. My daughter needs an aide who is dedicated to her, I dont want her to lose her teachers assistant because she can earn more in the other school system. Thats not good for her, for the school district, or for students generally.