The best hope of Ontario parents and students for returning to a normal school year will play out in a legal challenge on Friday, as administrators from two small school boards argue that union leaders do not have the power to order elementary teachers to boycott voluntary activities.
Upper Canada District School Board in Eastern Ontario and Trillium Lakelands District School Board in cottage country north of Toronto will ask the Ontario Labour Relations Board to deem that the elementary teachers union is engaging in an illegal strike by urging teachers to do the minimum on report cards, not attend field trips and stop participating in sports teams and clubs.
Other boards that have considered making similar complaints fear that joining the hearing could sour already strained relations with local unions. The hearing will be closely watched by education officials across the province, as the outcome could get the school year back on track for thousands of students and parents who have been affected by the labour strife that has plagued the public-school system since September.
The withdrawal of services by teachers at the two boards' schools has been among the most extensive in the province, and continues despite the imposition of a contract by the province on Jan. 3. In an e-mail to the Upper Canada District School Board's elementary teachers dated Jan. 17, union local president Margaret Merpaw offers advice for teachers who feel "pressured to participate in voluntary activities." She suggests that teachers assert that they are "focusing" on their teaching, or that their "workload is becoming so great" they don't have time to lead extracurricular activities such as sports teams and clubs.
Although teachers lead extracurriculars on a voluntary basis, union leaders are telling their members it is mandatory that they stop. A memo dated Jan. 16 by Trillium Lakeland's union leaders stated that field trips and extracurriculars are "voluntary activities and members should not participate in them – full stop."
"We have a moral responsibility to challenge this," said Greg Pietersma, chairman of the Upper Canada District School Board. "To allow an outside organization which is not accountable to my community to disrupt our schools is not appropriate."
Since the Liberal government imposed contract terms, union leaders at both the elementary and high-school level have strongly encouraged their members to avoid extracurricular activities.
The boards argue that the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario is not letting its members choose whether to participate in voluntary activities; it directs them not to do so. ETFO has "called, authorized, counselled, procured, supported and encouraged an unlawful strike," the application says. The Education Act defines "strike" as anything that disrupts the normal workings of the school day, the boards contend.
A spokeswoman for ETFO said the union will not comment until after the hearing.
The implications of the labour relations board hearing are significant. If the OLRB rules in favour of the school boards, teachers will face less pressure from their union when deciding what to do about voluntary services. Many could resume them.
"We're not looking to undermine the union in any shape or form … we're just looking for clarity," said Karen Round, chairwoman of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. "We owe this to our students, they need to know what to expect."
The boards' court submission contains a number of communications between union leaders and their members, including a provincewide memo dated Jan. 14 that directs members on how to meet minimum standards on report cards. It informs teachers that they "are not expected to comment on every learning skill or strand," and that "personalized feedback" does not require "that every student must have a different comment."
Submissions from the school boards also contain e-mails from union leaders instructing their members not to collect milk and pizza money, participate in report-card workshops, distribute school newsletters or attend field trips.
Teachers began withdrawing voluntary services in September after the Ontario government passed a controversial piece of legislation, Bill 115, that delayed experience-based pay raises for younger teachers and cut sick days. The government repealed the legislation on Wednesday, but it is not expected to have any impact on teacher frustration. Teachers are expected to protest outside the Liberal leadership convention this weekend.