With just four weeks until school starts, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is ratcheting up tensions with the province's teachers, threatening to recall the legislature early to ensure that the new academic year starts on time.
But educators accused the government of using the spectre of legislation to achieve its fiscal objectives: imposing wage restraints on teachers if they don't voluntarily reach new collective agreements with school boards to prevent labour disputes from delaying the resumption of classes.
However, school boards and teachers' unions say a strike or lockout at the beginning of the school year is unlikely under their usual collective bargaining process, and the Premier is unnecessarily worrying parents.
"I can categorically state that students will show up to school on Sept. 4 and there is no union, no local, no school board in a position to either lock out or go on strike," said Greg Pietersma, chairman of the Upper Canada District School Board.
Just days after the province's Education Minister threatened teachers with legislation, Mr. McGuinty came out swinging, saying that his government will take "all necessary measures" to ensure that the school year is not interrupted. The government has set a deadline of Aug. 31 for elementary and secondary teachers to sign a new contract with local school boards.
"We are running out of runway," Mr. McGuinty told reporters on Thursday in Waterloo, Ont., where he was visiting a school. "I know that what I am calling on teachers and local boards to do is not easy, but we have a shared responsibility to leave no stone unturned."
If the deadline is missed, Mr. McGuinty warned, existing contracts containing wage hikes will automatically roll over. No funds are allocated in the province's budget for wage increases. Mr. McGuinty would not spell out what legislation would entail, but he said his minority government can recall the legislature early.
Mr. McGuinty's confrontational tone stands in stark contrast to the friendly relationship his Liberal government has enjoyed with teachers and school boards. In the face of a $15-billion deficit, that relationship has cooled.
The government put teachers on notice in March that it wants them to accept a two-year salary freeze and no movement up the pay grid to help eliminate the deficit. In exchange, the province is promising to preserve full-day kindergarten and protect gains made in previous rounds of bargaining, including caps on elementary class sizes and more preparation time for lessons.
But the new tone is both irresponsible and unwarranted, educators say. The strict parameters for negotiations leave school boards and teachers' unions with no wiggle room, and the government, they say, has resorted to threats and suggestions the academic year will be disrupted to get voters' support for pushing through legislation.
"It's unnecessarily alarming parents. It's unnecessarily worrying teachers," Mr. Pietersma said. "They've talked so much about wanting to restore confidence in public education. And for many years, they did that. They are undoing a lot of the gains that they achieved."
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said negotiations typically start as the school year begins. A strike vote does not necessarily mean teachers would strike right away or at all.
"Some of the rhetoric is misleading the public," Mr. Coran said. "We have no plans to take any strike action at the start of the school year."
While the school boards employ teachers, funding for their salaries and benefits comes from the Ministry of Education.
Earlier this year, the ministry reached a deal with Catholic teachers by taking the unprecedented step of cutting the school boards out of the agreement. The deal gave teachers in the 45,000-member union a two-year pay freeze, three unpaid professional development days, fewer sick days, and blocks them from banking unused ones. Separate school boards have refused to sign the agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) because they fear they would be giving up too much power over hiring.
Education Minister Laurel Broten sent a letter to the chairs of the English Catholic district school boards on Thursday, urging them to sign and saying it is "critical" to do so before September to preserve "labour peace and stability" in the school system. The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association was unavailable for comment.