Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten has launched a pre-emptive strike against the province's teachers aimed at discouraging their unions from engaging in contract talks with individual school boards.
In a letter sent to the chairs of all 72 school boards in Ontario, Ms. Broten said the gains teachers won in 2005 and in 2008, including smaller class sizes in elementary schools and extra time for preparing lessons, resulted from collective bargaining that took place at the provincial bargaining table.
The letter was posted on the Ministry of Education website on Wednesday – one day before the union representing the province's elementary teachers is expected to announce at a news conference that it plans to hammer out deals with individual school boards.
"While most of our teacher and support staff partners continue to be focused on the [provincial]process," the letter states, "some teacher federations have indicated their intent to begin local bargaining."
The letter follows Ms. Broten's warning on Monday to the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario that it risks losing earlier gains if it does not return to the provincial table. She took ETFO president Sam Hammond to task for walking away from talks with the province after spending just one hour in a preliminary briefing. Mr. Hammond was not available for comment.
"I have no idea what ETFO will be saying tomorrow," Ms. Broten said in an interview. "But I hope that what they're going to say is that they're coming back to the table."
She denied that the timing of her letter is related to ETFO's news conference. Her letter, she said, simply reminds school board chairs about the value of the provincial table.
"The provincial table is the mechanism by which we achieved those gains and the mechanism which is best able to protect those gains," Ms. Broten said in the interview.
In the event that some boards do go ahead with local bargaining, Ms. Broten stated in her letter, they need to be "mindful of their responsibility" to negotiate deals that are within the government's "fiscal parameters" and that do not negatively impact the classroom experience for students.
Janet McDougald, chairwoman of the Peel District School Board, said Ms. Broten does not need to remind her about the importance of central bargaining, because the province controls the purse strings.
"We're very aware that we can only afford agreements that are fully funded by the province," Ms. McDougald said in an interview. "There is no discretionary money. There is no pot of reserves."
With the province facing a $15.3-billion deficit, the McGuinty government put teachers on notice last month that it wants them to accept a two-year freeze on salaries as well as no movement up the pay grid. In exchange, the province is promising to preserve full-day kindergarten as well as protect the gains made in previous bargaining rounds.
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, called the tough talk with teachers unprecedented, especially coming from a government that prides itself on the improvements it has made in education.
"Given the respect that has been achieved over the years for all of the accomplishments [within]the education system, it seems a little unusual that this is the approach they are taking," Mr. Coran said in an interview.