A disrupted school year looks likely as Ontario's Catholic boards have dashed Premier Dalton McGuinty's best hope of reaching an agreement with teachers.
As many as a dozen Catholic school boards, including those in Windsor and London, have filed for conciliation, rejecting the tentative deal reached between the province and the English Catholic union and asking the Ministry of Labour to bring in a third party to try to reach a new contract.
Signs of hope, however, emerged late Tuesday as Toronto's Catholic board voted in an emergency meeting to accept the deal. The last-minute agreement is expected to avoid labour strife and prevent costly teacher raises from taking effect this fall.
The Toronto Catholic board is the first in Ontario to reach an agreement. It's an important breakthrough for the provincial government, which will be pressing other school boards to do the same.
Education Minister Laurel Broten said in a statement that the trustees put student interests first.
"I commend them for leading the way and doing what's best to put our education system on a sustainable financial footing while protecting the gains we've made in education together," she said.
Most school boards oppose the province's tentative contract framework.
"There are serious concerns with this deal," said Windsor's Catholic school board chair, Barabara Holland. "There are serious concerns about a loss of management rights."
A conciliator will determine whether there is enough common ground for a settlement. If not, the boards and the teachers' unions will have the option of a strike or lockout. With the two sides far apart, the conciliator's chances of success are considered slim.
One Catholic teacher's group has already reacted to news that their local board had filed for conciliation by threatening to strike.
"The [London Catholic school board's] move needlessly exposes students, parents and teachers to unrest in our schools this fall," union local vice-president Shelly Malone wrote in a statement.
The province's other teacher unions and the public school boards have all voiced opposition to the terms of the proposed deal. In filing for conciliation the Catholic boards are raising similar concerns, and expressing frustration with the bargaining process.
In exchange for a wage freeze and a delay to experience-based raises for new teachers, the unions negotiated tighter control over teacher hiring and assessments. The province's public school boards have said this would erode management rights. They sent a letter to the Ministry of Education raising concerns with contract terms that would require principals to hire teachers based on seniority, and give teachers control over assessments that can track their impact on student learning.
Although teachers are technically employed by school boards, the ministry funds their salaries. If the school boards fail to sign a new contract before September, the old one will remain in effect, leaving the province to pay for as many as two million more banked sick days and a 5.5 per cent pay increase for new teachers.
According to the province's calculations, the deal with Toronto Catholic will save $3.7-million in costs associated with those pay increases.
Mr. McGuinty has directed school boards to use the deal with Catholic teachers as a "road map" in negotiations with all of the province's educators. He has threatened to use legislation to avoid labour disruption. Speaking to reporters at a Catholic school in Sault Ste. Marie, Mr. McGuinty called legislation a "last resort."
"The best options for us is always to negotiate these agreements together," he said, adding that if collective bargaining fails, then the government will make sure agreements between the school boards and teacher unions are in place for the fall.
Neither Mr. McGuinty or Ms. Broten have spelled out what legislation would entail, but the Premier has indicated that his minority government can recall the legislature early.
The Liberal government's confrontational tone stands in stark contrast to the friendly relationship Mr. McGuinty has enjoyed with teachers and school boards. In the face of a $15-billion deficit, that relationship cooled. The government put teachers on notice in March that it wants them to accept a two-year salary freeze and no movement up the pay grid to help eliminate the deficit. In exchange, the province is promising to preserve full-day kindergarten and protect gains made in previous rounds of bargaining, including caps on elementary class sizes and more preparation time for lessons.