TORONTO—Ontario's high school teachers will start the early stages of contract talks next month in what could be a contentious round of bargaining.
Contracts for teachers and education workers at the province's publicly funded schools expire at the end of August, but Education Minister Lisa Thompson has asked unions to come to the table early.
Doing so could mean that the new school year doesn't kick off with labour disruptions.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation accepted that invitation yesterday, which means that an initial meeting between the parties for central bargaining has to take place in the next 15 days. They are the first of the teacher and education worker unions to give their notice.
OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said they will come to the table ready to talk, but are wary about what proposals the government might bring.
“We have seen indications from this government that they're prepared to sacrifice quality education and so certainly we're expecting some difficulty, but we'll bring forward positive proposals and hope they're listening,” he said.
Unions and school boards have criticized the government's recent moves to increase class sizes for Grade 4 and higher, mandate e-learning courses and reduce per-student funding to boards.
Thompson announced last month that high school class sizes will increase from an average of 22 to 28 over four years, and average class sizes for Grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom.
School boards have said the increase means thousands of teaching jobs will be lost, and have started issuing surplus notices to teachers, but the government has insisted the jobs can be eliminated through attrition.
Some boards have also said that because some specialized classes in high school need to have lower numbers, others will need to have upwards of 35 students to arrive at the mandated average.
Along with larger class sizes, Thompson also announced that students will need to complete four e-learning courses.
Some boards have expressed concerns that online courses might not be right for all students, and that in rural areas students may not have reliable internet.
Boards have also said the class size changes will lead to fewer courses being offered, such as in the arts, and some have already told students they will have to reselect their courses for the fall.
The Progressive Conservative government announced 2019-20 school board funding Friday, and while the overall funding envelope was up slightly over the current year, boards will get an average of $12,246 per pupil, down from $12,300, due to higher enrolment.
At the same time, the government is looking at ways to constrain public sector wage increases, including possibly imposing hard caps on pay increases, as it tries to eliminate an $11.7-billion deficit.
Thompson said she's eager to get to the bargaining table.
“We're looking forward to hearing from our stakeholders,” she said.
When asked this month about the possibility of strikes, Premier Doug Ford warned unions not to take action.
“I think it's a pretty good deal that they have right now," he said. ”They get their three months holidays. They have the best benefit package in the entire country, the best pension in the entire country, the health plan. They have a great gig, if you want to call it (that).
“They do a great job, by the way, and I appreciate all the teachers, but guys, don't pull this strike nonsense on the parents and on the poor students,” he added.