To reach deals with local boards, Ontario's high-school teachers union made a major concession, accepting delays to pay raises for young teachers. The agreements have provided the first real signs of hope to a school year plagued by disruptions, including cancelled sports teams and delayed report cards.
Two of the deals were approved by the Minister of Education Tuesday, and five others – believed to contain similar concessions, according to sources familiar with the talks – were awaiting ministry approval.
More than 20 public-school boards have yet to reach deals with their respective union locals, which will now be under pressure to offer similar concessions. A return to normal for elementary schools seemed less likely as negotiations between the school boards and their union have been less active.
Pay raises for teachers at the beginning of their careers had been a major sticking point in negotiations. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation had sought to maintain raises that usually take effect automatically in September in the first 10 years of a teachers' career. Those raises help educators climb the pay grid, from around $40,000 a year to a maximum of $90,000.
The province wanted to freeze the pay grid for two years. It compromised with English Catholic teachers in the summer, allowing the pay grid to take effect on the 97th day of the school year, in exchange for three unpaid professional development days. The deals reached with public boards implement the same delayed raise, but not the unpaid PD days.
OSSTF president Ken Coran declined to discuss the specifics of the deals but confirmed that negotiators looked for creative alternatives to the three PD days that English Catholic teachers accepted.
"There are creative ways to solve problems and that's what we did: We found those creative ways," he said.
Upper Grand and York Region district school boards were the first to ink tentative deals and to get the province's approval. Union membership will still have to ratify the deals, and agree to their terms, but they were welcome news for Premier Dalton McGuinty who has seen a strong nine-year record on education tarnished by the dispute.
"I'm hopeful that these agreements will act as a bit of a template for other boards around the province and that this will get the ball rolling," he said.
Strike action launched at Upper Grand last week, which serves a sweeping area that includes Guelph and the surrounding counties, was halted after the deal was reached.
High-school teachers at most other boards, however, are continuing job action and refused to do administrative work, including attending staff meetings and supervising students outside the classroom. Since the job action started on Nov. 11, principals have been struggling to pick up the slack, and keep the school day running as usual.
Elementary teachers at one school board, York Region, launched job action this week, and four others are expected to join by Dec. 1. Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond hasn't expressed any hope that the deal drafted by his colleagues at the high-school teachers' federation will provide a template.
Many teachers are angry with the provincial government for imposing the terms of their contracts through legislation this September. Bill 115 imposed cuts to their sick days, a wage freeze and limits on their ability to strike, prompting many to stop volunteer activities such as coaching sports teams and leading clubs. The province said the concessions were necessary to balance the budget in the face of a $14.8-billion deficit while preserving initiatives such as caps on primary class sizes and full-day kindergarten.
With a report from Karen Howlett