As March break comes to a close, parents and students are eager to see whether talks between Ontario's new Minister of Education, Liz Sandals, and the teachers' unions can bring peace to the final months of a tense school year. Students are hoping teachers will restore some of the popular extracurricular activities that take place in the spring, such as track teams and end-of-the-year field trips.
The high school teachers' union has advised its members to resume leading those activities based on the progress of the talks. Leaders of the elementary teachers' union, however, have advised teachers to continue their protest.
The pressure is on Ms. Sandals to meet the demands of teachers' unions without reopening the contract terms imposed this school year through legislation – and without generating more costs. Ms. Sandals sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss her strategy for restoring peace to Ontario's public schools.
There appears to be progress in talks with the high school teachers' union. But Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, says he wants concrete promises in order for teachers to resume voluntary activities. What does concrete mean?
You're going to have to ask Sam that question. That's a very good question, and we'd be interested in the answer to that as well. If concrete means that we're suddenly going to reopen the collective agreements and that there's new money there to be found, then no, there isn't. If that's his definition of concrete, we're going to have a real problem. One of the things that we're certainly committed to doing is looking at the collective bargaining structure. The structure that is there now assumes that school boards are both the funder and the employer. We've now got a different relationship: The government's the funder, the school boards are the employer, and the unions are representing the teachers and the other support workers.
Will the next round of bargaining be just as tough?
My hope would be that [next] time we've got a process that allows us to work through bargaining, and we've got enough understanding in advance that fiscal reality is part of the conversation, that people aren't going to be as surprised.
ETFO has advised its members to stop leading extracurriculars. What's your sense of how many teachers will follow that advice?
We focus on the high-profile volunteer activities, like which sports are having provincial finals. But if you get under the radar a bit, what seems to have been happening is that some of the lower-profile activities are often coming back gradually. I think you're also going to see that more and more teachers want to repair the relationship – not with the government, because they really don't care about repairing the relationship with the government, I get that – but they want to repair the relationship with the parents and the kids.
But how will you save the district track meet?
That will be a case of where do we get in discussions with ETFO. It may be a case of they have enough confidence that we're making progress that they may decide to lift the ban. I can't predict that.
– This interview has been edited and condensed.