The organization that represents Ontario public school boards is seeking legal advice as to whether its members can legally force teachers to attend events such as meet-the-teacher nights in the wake of a legislated wage freeze that has many opting out in protest.
Lawyers for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association are also probing the definition of an illegal strike, the association said.
Clubs and sports teams, which many teachers have stopped coaching, fall clearly under the banner of volunteer work, but events such as school open houses, curriculum nights and parent-teacher meetings may be a requirement under the Education Act.
Teachers began cutting back on their time during the second week of school, when the Ontario government approved legislation that dictates the terms of their contracts. Many were so angry at the province that they stopped running clubs, coaching teams and staying after school to help students even before unions leaders directed them to take a pause. More recently, teachers have cancelled open houses and parent-teacher nights, for many parents the first opportunity to meet their children's teachers for the year and learn about curriculum expectations.
Staff and principals are under enormous pressure from parents and students to salvage the school year for extracurricular activities. Yet neither the province nor the unions have indicated they'll back down with unions holding strike votes that draw on their members' anger. The new legislation blocks teachers from going on strike, but the votes suggest the dispute is unlikely to quiet down without legal intervention.
"How far this can escalate I don't know," said Lori Lukinuk, vice-president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, which represents the 31 English-language, non-Catholic school boards in the province. (The French and Catholic teachers' unions signed deals with the province over the summer, and have avoided major labour strife.)
If teachers continue to withdraw services, "individual school boards are going to have to make tough decisions down the line," said Ms. Lukinuk. (Administrators have suggested Thanksgiving as a deadline for hopes to salvage extracurricular activities during the school year.)
Parent-teacher meetings may force some of those decisions. The Education Act sets out the duties of teachers, including that they "participate in regular meetings with pupils' parents or guardians."
Calls to the president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, Sam Hammond, were not returned.
"That's a good example of where the debate will be," said Geoff Williams, director of labour relations for OPSBA. "What kinds of parent-teacher meetings constitute a 'regular' meeting, and what happens if teachers don't go to them? At what point do boards decide that they have to act, by disciplining individual teachers and pursuing complaints against their union with the Labour Board?"
School boards are reluctant to pick a fight with teachers, however. They are just as angry at the government for its heavy-handed legislation.
"The government got themselves into this and now we're having to deal with it," said Janet McDougald, chair of the Peel District School Board.
"It's hard for boards to know how to express their displeasure," Ms. Lukinuk said.
The fact that this strife is manifesting differently in individual schools, some as little as a few kilometres from each other, adds to parents' frustration. At Seventh Street Junior School, in Toronto's west end, for example, meet-the-teacher night isn't cancelled, but only about half of staff intend to participate. A few kilometres away, at James S. Bell Junior Middle School, it was business-as-usual at Wednesday's meet-the-teacher night. And just north of both those schools, at Sir Adam Beck Junior School, parent-teacher meetings scheduled for Sept. 27 have been cancelled and parents are being told to make an appointment to meet with teachers during the school day instead.
Tina Chan-Kim, a mother of three children who attend Sir Adam Beck, said the randomness is disconcerting.
"The whole uncertainty of it makes it very difficult for families," she said.
She is an independent consultant and will be able to take the time off to see her children's teachers during the day, but her husband will have to miss out.
"Parents are not happy," she said. "We understand why it's happening but we don't necessarily agree with the method. The impact on kids and parents isn't going to generate the support that teachers want."
Teachers are pushing back against the Ontario government for legislating the terms of their contract, a step the government says was a necessity because the unions wouldn't give up experience-based pay raises and cuts to sick days needed to help tackle the province's $15-billion deficit.
Sports teams, school dances, fundraisers and clubs are completely cancelled at dozens of high schools and as many as half of the province's elementary schools are cancelling or adjusting their meet-the-teacher nights.
These teacher protests are piecemeal as union leaders aren't in a legal positions to give clear work-to-rule directions. Teachers have been left to make their own decisions about whether to coach the school track team, lead the book club, or stay with students who need extra help after school.