As talks between the Liberal government's new leadership and Ontario teachers continue on the prospect of schools getting their sports teams and clubs back, insiders say discussions with leaders representing high-school educators are offering the most hope.
Leaders for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation meet Friday to update the union locals about their latest talks with new Education Minister Liz Sandals. Teachers have withdrawn extracurricular activities to show their frustration at the provincial government for legislating the terms of their contracts.
Public school boards have been worrying for months about the loss of students to the Catholic and private systems because of the cancellation of extracurriculars. With early enrolment projections suggesting numbers could be down, and budget discussions introducing the prospect of teacher layoffs, those fears are spreading to union leaders.
The resumption of extracurriculars was on the table at another OSSTF meeting shortly after Kathleen Wynne was chosen as the Ontario Liberals' new leader, but was voted down.
The OSSTF and their colleagues at the elementary level have been meeting with government officials for several weeks, and insiders say high-school teachers are making better progress toward a deal.
"It is very important now that everybody be willing to give up a little bit in order to get a solution," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. "I think if after March break there continues to be no extracurricular activities, it will really begin to have a significant impact on kids, on parents' confidence in the system itself, and that's not good for anybody. It's undermining public confidence in public education."
Ms. Wynne has indicated plans to revamp the negotiations process, which has involved an informal agreement for all parties to meet at the provincial discussion table over the last decade. Teachers and school boards have lamented that the process doesn't leave enough room for local-level negotiations, and the imposition of contract terms through legislation earlier this year has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many teachers.
"We're kind of like jilted lovers. We're very upset about the lack of respect shown to us," said Michael Foulds, a high-school teacher in Owen Sound, Ont., and a union representative.
Mr. Foulds said that to repair its relationship with teachers, the government will need to commit – likely through legislation – to local-level bargaining.
Ms. Sandals has said that the collective bargaining process will be restructured going forward. "We all recognize there's some urgency in rewriting the legislation, in changing the rules around collective bargaining for teachers in the province," she said Wednesday, shortly after meeting with the elementary teachers' union.
Though Ms. Wynne has said she won't reopen contracts, education insiders say the government could offer teachers an olive branch in the form of sick days – one of the main complaints regarding the terms imposed through legislation.
Many teachers formerly were eligible for 20 sick days each year, which they could bank for later use or a payout upon retirement. Under the imposed contract, teachers receive 11 days that they cannot save year-to-year. Further, many younger teachers lost days they'd previously banked.
Adding one or two non-bankable sick days would not necessarily disrupt the government's balance sheet, insiders say.