As Ontario's public elementary school teachers are about to join job-action ranks Monday, the talks between the province and its teachers groups have focused on class size and working conditions. Wage and pension issues have not been front and centre.
This is, in part, the result of the Liberal government's edict that public-service contracts must be "net zero" – any wage increase has to be balanced by taking away something else.
"The government has made it pretty clear it's net zero," said Michael Barrett, head of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association and chair of the Durham school board. Durham high school teachers are on strike. "There is no new money … up to this point they really haven't talked about the dollar."
He says the talks so far have focused on language and philosophical issues. He says there has been no discussion in regard to pensions, either.
The province's public elementary school teachers, meanwhile, are refusing to perform some administrative duties, such as overseeing standardized tests and providing comments on report cards, in a bid to turn up the pressure on the Liberal government amid contract talks. Teachers do not plan to walk off the job at this time or nix extracurricular activities.
Their job action comes as high school teachers continue striking at three public boards – in Peel and Durham in the Greater Toronto Area and in Rainbow in the Sudbury region. With 4,500 teachers on strike, classes have been cancelled for 72,000 students. High school teachers in at least four more boards could walk out in the coming weeks.
The possibility of a walkout by elementary school teachers had loomed over parents for nearly a week: Teachers are in a legal position to strike.
Milton parent Henry Janzen is relieved elementary school teachers will remain in the classroom.
"I'm happy that classes will still go on. The teachers will still teach. They'll still do extracurricular activities," said Mr. Janzen, co-chair of the school council at Bruce Trail Public School west of Toronto. His eldest son is in Grade 4. "It seems like their actions will have a minimal effect on the day-to-day running of the school."
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, was not available for an interview Sunday. On Friday, he said teachers will stop performing administrative functions until the government and the OPSBA withdraw some of their bargaining demands.
He noted those demands include removing caps on class sizes and giving principals more power to oversee how teachers use their preparation time. Both education minister Liz Sandals and Mr. Barrett have denied they are trying to remove class-size caps.
Mr. Hammond has warned that pulling administrative functions is "phase one" of the teachers' job action. He would not elaborate on what the next phase could entail. He said further action depends on whether the government meets his demands.
Mr. Janzen is hopeful the two sides can reach an agreement. The government is trying to hold the line on spending as it deals with a massive deficit.
"The most important part of this whole thing is the kids," Mr. Janzen said.
In Durham, high school students have been away from class since April 20. Negotiations with the local school board resumed on Friday, but no progress was made, said Dave Barrowclough, president of District 13 of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. The two parties are working with a mediator.
"There was some paper that went back and forth. I don't think we could call it progress, though. I think it's pretty much the same thing we were seeing beforehand," Mr. Barrowclough said.
Two more negotiation dates are scheduled over the next two weeks.