The province is powerless to restore peace to public schools until the Ontario Liberal Party chooses a new leader and Education Minister Laurel Broten says “hope” is her only tool at this point.
With a Liberal leadership convention set for the end of January, that would leave little chance that teachers in public elementary and high schools will soon resume volunteer activities such as coaching sports teams and organizing clubs.
Teachers withdrew their participation in extracurricular activities in protest of the Liberals’ Bill 115, which set a deadline for bargaining of Dec. 31, and enabled the province to impose a contract last week that froze wages and cut sick days. The government imposed the bill over the holidays, fuelling teachers’ resentment.
Whether normalcy can be restored to the school year will depend on what olive branch, if any, the new premier – and possibly a new education minister – extends to teachers.
Ms. Broten, speaking to The Globe and Mail’s editorial board Monday, bristled at being described as a lame duck, but was stumped for ways the sitting government could restore the school year. The contract her government has imposed makes strike action illegal, but she cannot force teachers to resume extracurricular activities, which they provide on a volunteer basis.
“What do we need to do to move forward? I think we need to hope,” she said.
Ms. Broten said there was a great deal of “misinformation” about contracts that were imposed on teachers last week and encouraged educators to read over the terms for themselves.
She also said that negotiations for a new contract could begin any time now, although she expects the financial situation to still be difficult in 2014.
Students – who have gone months without the activities many consider the best part of the school day – hold out little hope for the return of their extracurriculars.
They resumed classes Monday with questions for their teachers about the school year ahead. Heather Johnson, a Grade 12 student at Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School, said she and her classmates are “worried” about whether clubs, sports and after-school activities would resume.
“After speaking with a few teachers I don’t think we will be getting them back just yet,” she said.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has advised its members not to participate in voluntary activities. Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said high-school teachers are being asked to do the same. Leaders from both unions will hold meetings Wednesday to discuss next steps, which could include a possible day of protest and a lobbying campaign.
Teachers picketed outside the first Liberal leadership debate in Ajax, Sunday. They are expected to picket outside the party’s convention Jan. 25-27.
“We’re certainly aware of the Liberal leadership convention. We’re certainly interested in the outcome of the election. We would request that immediately upon a new leader being selected that a meeting be held [with teachers],” Mr. Coran said.
There are seven contenders for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s job, three of them former education ministers. They’ve hinted at very different strategies for dealing with the teacher dispute.
Gerard Kennedy, who served as minister nearly a decade ago, has taken the most teacher-friendly stand and has been critical of the government’s current approach. He has pledged to throw out the two-year contracts. Ms. Broten promised to repeal Bill 115 now that the terms have been imposed. But teachers have called that an empty gesture.
The Ontario Liberals have said that the cutbacks were necessary to tackle a $14-billion provincial deficit while preserving job-generating programs such as caps on primary-class sizes and full-day kindergarten. Ms. Broten said that as many as 10,000 teachers would have lost their jobs if the government had to cancel full-time kindergarten and increase class sizes instead of asking for a wage freeze.
“We know what we were asking teachers was a challenging ask,” she said. “It was what we had to ask.”