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Student group seeks changes to Ontario teachers legislation

Ontario Minister of Education Laurel Broten.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

A group representing Ontario students says it wants the Liberals to remove controversial amendments to hiring and assessment practices from a proposed bill to force a new contract on teachers this fall, saying the changes have nothing to do with fiscal prudence.

MPPs will return to the legislature two weeks early on Monday to consider legislation that would freeze some teachers' wages, cut sick days and block them from going on strike. The Liberals say the measures are necessary to help address the province's $15-billion deficit and ensure the school year starts on time.

The bill is expected to mirror changes that were negotiated with English Catholic teachers, which – in addition to new financial terms – included provisions that would limit school boards' control over hiring decisions and student assessments.

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Hirad Zafari, president of the Ontario Student Trustees' Association, said the group isn't disputing the province's reasons for limiting teachers' pay and benefits, since other public sector workers are also facing cuts. But he said any non-monetary changes to the teachers' contracts should come about through negotiation.

"These are fairly large changes, and it hasn't come after much discussion," Mr. Zafari said. "They don't need to be included in a bill whose primary focus is to ensure financial stability."

In July, English Catholic teachers became the first to accept a new contract that will freeze wages for most teachers and cut their sick days. Ontario's francophone teacher's union and York's Catholic school board later signed the same deal.

In exchange for the wage freeze and a delay to experience-based raises for new teachers, the province gave English Catholic teachers more control over the assessments they use to track student learning and introduced a requirement that principals hire based on seniority. School board associations and some parents have spoken out against the changes, saying they erode the school boards' management rights and could hurt the quality of students' educations.

With students due back in school on Sept. 4, the Liberals are looking to impose a similar contract on the province's remaining 70 school boards, ending more than six months of negotiations.

The provincial Tories say they will support the legislation because it is expected to save the province money at a time when it's deep in debt. But education critic Lisa MacLeod has said she would introduce amendments if the bill goes to committee for further study, calling changes to hiring and assessment practices "unacceptable."

"School boards and principals must be empowered to hire the best staff possible to teach and guide Ontario's children and to ensure proper assessment and reporting to parents," Ms. MacLeod wrote in a letter to Education Minister Laurel Broten.

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The Ontario Student Trustees' Association says it will hold a press conference to discuss the bill Monday afternoon.

With a report from Kate Hammer

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