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Liz Sandals takes helm as Ontario’s Education Minister amid dispute with teachers

Liz Sandals speaks to the media following the swearing in of Kathleen Wynne as Ontario's first female premier, on Feb. 11, 2013. Ms. Sandals has been named the province’s Education Minister amid a protracted dispute between the provincial government and teachers.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Former school trustee Liz Sandals inherited one of Ontario's most difficult files Monday, taking on the post of Education Minister and the ambitious task of resolving a dispute with Ontario's teachers and restoring sports teams, clubs and other after-school activities.

Ms. Sandals brings close to 20 years of experience in the education sector to the file – including a turn as president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association and as parliamentary assistant to the minister of education – but her boss, Premier Kathleen Wynne, is expected to continue to shape the government's strategy for restoring peace in the province's schools.

Ms. Sandals's appointment comes two weeks after discussions between the Liberal government and union leaders began. The tone and parameters of those talks were set almost immediately after Ms. Wynne became the province's incoming-premier, and she has pointed to deep changes to the negotiations process as a way forward.

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A source said three meetings last week with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers' Federation focused on complaints teachers had with the current contracts that were imposed through legislation. Ms. Wynne has identified the issue as a priority for her government, and given her experience at the bargaining table as a former education minister, her close involvement was anticipated.

Ms. Sandals, however, is not expected to serve as a puppet for the Premier, unlike some of her predecessors on the file. A former Guelph-area trustee, she has worked alongside Ms. Wynne on education, serving as her parliamentary assistant during the Premier's term as education minister. Ms. Sandals is known for having strong opinions on education issues, but will likely not be able to pursue them until the labour dispute with the province's teachers is settled.

Ms. Sandals told reporters Monday that it is a "high priority" to restore extracurricular activities in schools.

"I have a sense that it's time that we all start working together again," she said.

The discussions, initiated by Ms. Wynne's office and attended by school board officials and the heads of both teacher unions, are being described by all sides as hopeful. One of the key items on the agenda is how to repair the province's relationship with teachers so that educators resume their participation in sports teams, clubs and after-school activities. "It was an exploratory meeting to re-establish relationships and find common ground to try to move forward," a source said of last week's discussions. Another one is tentatively scheduled for this week.

Ms. Sandals has dealt with the loss of extracurriculars in schools before. She was head of OPSBA in the late 1990s when teachers withdrew them to show their anger at Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris.

In a letter published in Education Today in 2001, she pointed to research that shows confidence in public education is eroded by friction between the government and teachers.

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"The public is long past caring who is to blame and has moved to to 'a plague on all your houses,' " Ms. Sandals wrote. "The public simply wants the problem resolved! … If even one partner refuses to move from confrontation to co-operation, public education will be the inevitable casualty of a war that has dragged on for too long."

Though strategic decisions on the labour dispute are likely to come directly from Ms. Wynne office, the new minister and Premier have a history of constructive collaboration. Sources say that when Ms. Sandals served as Ms. Wynne's parliamentary assistant, they debated on issues and the Premier appeared to put a lot of stock in Ms. Sandals's opinions. Ms. Sandals led important initiatives, including anti-bullying policies and updating the province's physical education curriculum. (It was shelved after some parents found parts of the sexual-education curriculum too explicit.)

"I think they have a lot of mutual trust and respect. And I think that because they worked together in so many ways before, that they will be able to … find the balance between the vision of the Premier's office and the vision of the ministry of education," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, who has known both women for over a decade.

Ms. Sandals, school trustee from 1988 to 2002 in Guelph before representing the area at Queen's Park, was the rumoured favourite for the job. This wasn't the first time: The long-time backbencher was expected to fill the role of education minister in 2006 when Sandra Pupatello won it instead.

"I have a lot of optimism," said Michael Barrett, president of the OPSBA. "Kathleen [Wynne]'s interest in public education will be not-so-muted, but I think the two are pretty aligned on issues in education."

ETFO and OSSTF leaders congratulated Ms. Sandals on her appointment and said they were hopeful that a solution would be found to the current labour dispute.

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