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Bill 160 still a go--for now

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Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act, will remain in effect for at least one school year, with the Harris government announcing it intends to proceed with its changes to the education system for September.

This despite a ruling by Justice Peter Cumming last week that Bill 160 violated the constitutional right of separate school boards to levy their own taxes.

The court challenge was launched by the Ontario Public School Boards Association and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

Education and Training minister Dave Johnson already has announced his ministry planned to appeal Justice Cumming’s ruling.

Daniele Gauvin, media relations officer for the Ministry of Education and Training, said yesterday the government has yet to file its appeal but noted it had 30 days from the ruling to do so.

Until then, implementing the changes as a result of Bill 160 for September will continue as scheduled.

“Activity in the education system doesn’t stop pending the legal process,” Gauvin said. “There are no changes for September.”

“I think we’re locked into the ramifications of Bill 160 for the next school year,” agreed Gord McBride, chairman of the Rainy River District School Board.

“You can’t just change things in the school system overnight,” he noted.

Still, last week’s ruling did cause a minor disruption in contract negotiations between the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the public school board, which postponed a bargaining session scheduled for last Friday.

But local OSSTF president Andrew Hallikas said more talks have been scheduled for August, and believed a settlement could be reached this summer.

“Even though we postponed our talks on [July] 24, both sides are talking with one another,” he said. “I think, locally, we’re going to be all right.”

Meanwhile, even though the only fault Justice Cumming could find with Bill 160 pertained to separate school ratepayers, Hallikas believed his ruling could be the straw that breaks its back.

“The judge said the government has moved too fast and hadn’t thought it through,” he noted.

Hallikas also said the ruling brings up the question of why separate school boards have the constitutional right to levy their own taxes while public boards do not.

“Now you’ve got a minority with rights the majority doesn’t have,” he argued. “Now what everyone is saying is the public board needs the same rights.”

“I would think there would be another challenge on the public school board’s account [in this regard],” said McBride, noting that having two sets of rules for public and separate boards wasn’t “morally correct.”

Still, it’s too early to tell what the full impact of Justice Cumming’s ruling will be. Hallikas said both the government and the teachers are planning their next court maneuvers, and that people will “need to see what transpires.”

But McBride noted all this talk about Bill 160 is distracting the school boards, the teachers and the government from keeping their focus where it should be—the education of students.

“We should be concentrating on doing better things in our schools, and developing better policies,” he said.

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