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Teachers walk the picket line in front of the York Region District School Board in Aurora, Ont., on Feb. 4.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government’s proposal to gut a hiring regulation for supply teachers and cut special education supports led to a breakdown in contract talks with its elementary teachers, according to the head of their union.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the government met for three days of renewed contract talks last week before negotiations broke down late Friday evening and resulted in the union escalating its strike action this week.

Sam Hammond, president of ETFO, told reporters on Tuesday that both sides were close to an agreement on three or four issues that would have extended discussions into the weekend.

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Except, Mr. Hammond said that late on Friday, government negotiators wanted to change a regulation brought in by the former Liberal government that gives supply teachers with more seniority an edge in getting hired for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions. The regulation was created after complaints that nepotism in hiring was occurring. However, school boards and principals have raised concerns about Regulation 274 that they say doesn’t allow them to hire teachers who are the best fit for the job, but rather gives preference to supply teachers with the most seniority.

Further, Mr. Hammond said the government proposed renewing less than half the funding for teaching positions to support special education students, Indigenous students, at-risk students and English language learners. He said government negotiators would only consider increasing funding if ETFO makes other cuts.

“The government’s negotiators changed course and tabled impossible options they knew ETFO could not accept,” Mr. Hammond said, adding that salaries were not addressed over the three days.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Tuesday that the government put forward “reasonable” proposals at the bargaining table, and “it is deeply disappointing parents are still seeing repeated escalation at the expense of our students to advance higher compensation, including more generous benefit plans.”

ETFO is the country’s largest education union with 83,000 members. This week, thousands of elementary students are out of school for two days because of a provincewide strike on Thursday, accompanied by a week of rotating strikes that would hit every public board on a certain day.

The strike action will continue into next week, Mr. Hammond said, acknowledging that it is a hardship for many families.

“A withdrawal of service is our only means of putting pressure on the minister to stop the cuts, support our most vulnerable students and maintain Ontario’s world-class public education system,” he said.

All the main teacher unions in the province are involved in some form of job action through work-to-rule or strikes.

Among the issues are class sizes in kindergarten, junior and intermediate grades and high school; mandating that high school students take two online courses; maintaining the full-day kindergarten program with a teacher and an early childhood educator; and compensation.

The unions are asking for 2-per-cent cost-of-living increases in line with inflation – in the face of the government’s wage-cap legislation meant to limit public-sector pay increases to 1 per cent.

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