As one of Ontario's three high school teachers' strikes nears the one-month mark, the Ministry of Education is seeking advice on whether the walkouts could jeopardize the school year.
The answer from the Education Relations Commission of Ontario could clear the way for the province to enact back-to-work legislation.
Minister Liz Sandals announced the decision late Friday afternoon. A different legal hearing already in progress over the three strikes is set to go into next week, but a ruling on whether the school year is in danger could happen much more quickly.
The Education Relations Commission, whose members are appointed by the province, will look at whether strikes in districts in the Durham, Sudbury and Peel areas might prevent students from completing the school year.
The strikes began on April 20. Durham's high schools have been closed for nearly a month, Sudbury's for three weeks and Peel district's for two weeks.
If students at those boards cannot complete the year's credits, some who are in their final year could lose university spots.
"As Minister of Education, I have a direct interest in the achievement and well-being of students across Ontario and their ability to successfully complete their school year," Ms. Sandals said in a news release.
"We are increasingly concerned the ongoing local strikes in Durham, Rainbow and Peel district school boards may be putting the school year at risk."
On Friday, two more groups of high school teachers from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) threatened job action, although not full strikes. The teachers, who are in Ottawa and Halton districts, plan to go on administrative strike next Thursday, including refusing to write comments on report cards, if contract talks do not start making progress.
The two new actions would be similar to the partial withdrawal of services that all Ontario public elementary school teachers began on Monday.
The three school boards with full high school strikes also had the option to seek a jeopardy ruling, Michael Barrett, chair of Durham District School Board, said earlier this week. Instead they filed a joint application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to have the strikes deemed illegal.
The three boards argue that the secondary school teachers' union is striking over bargaining issues that are not their jurisdiction under the province's new two-tiered contract negotiation system. In that system, all significant items that have financial implications are negotiated at a central table with the province rather than with each board.
The hearing began on Thursday, and a ruling against the union would send teachers back to class immediately. However, it is unclear when it will end. Illegal-strike hearings usually take about a day, because they are considered emergencies. However, labour board chair Bernard Fishbein said on Friday the hearings would go into next week.
A ruling in that case should not affect the Ottawa-Carleton teachers' plans, said Dan Maxwell, the president of the OSSTF's local in Ottawa. "I would think that the Ottawa-Carleton board would have to actually bring a complaint forward to the labour board of a similar nature."
Under the terms of the job action, Ottawa-Carleton teachers will not go to staff or board meetings, help write annual learning plans for students or take part in school-improvement plans, and will not help write curricula, among other ministry activities, Mr. Maxwell said.
Bargaining dates scheduled over the next week could help avert the action, he said.
However, he said talks have been going slowly and not very well since they started in Ottawa-Carleton in February, particularly around questions of classroom workload. "Our action is very specifically directed at the lack of progress that we're having at our local table here," he said.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board could not be reached on Friday for comment.
Halton District teachers are planning to take identical action, an OSSTF spokeswoman said.
At the labour board hearing, a lawyer for the school boards told Mr. Fishbein his task would be to examine the motivation of the three striking union locals – to "look into their hearts and souls."
The union is accused of holding local strikes to pressure the provincial government and others at the central negotiating table, which handles most big-ticket bargaining items. The school boards will also need to argue that the legislation does not permit strikes at one level over bargaining grievances at another.
The union says the strikes in Durham, Sudbury and Peel districts are because of unproductive talks at the local level.
The boards' lawyers pointed to media interviews by union officials and presented photographs of striking teachers whose placard slogans referred to central table issues, particularly class sizes.