Mediator calls off talks between province and high school teachers as one-day strike looms Wednesday

Mediator calls off talks between province and high school teachers as one-day strike looms Wednesday

A newly appointed mediator abruptly called off talks between the province and the public high school teachers’ union on Monday, saying a second day of bargaining would be a waste of time given how far apart the sides are.

Negotiations had been scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, but were shut down around dinnertime Monday — dashing hopes of a deal that could avert another one-day walkout planned for Wednesday.

“The management team has demonstrated no willingness to withdraw their positions on increases to class size, mandatory e-learning or the removal of long-term protections for students with special needs,” Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) President Harvey Bischof said to members in a memo obtained by the Star.

“The parties made no progress on any of the outstanding issues. Of note, salary and compensation formed no part of (Monday’s) discussions” — an issue Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said is the main sticking point.

“Given the distance between the two parties, the (Ministry of Labour) mediator has determined that further discussions tomorrow would not be beneficial and has therefore cancelled Tuesday’s bargaining,” Bischof also said, adding no other dates are scheduled.

In a statement, Lecce said he is “frustrated and disappointed by OSSTF’s actions at the negotiating table …They came forward (Monday) with no new proposals, no changes to their position, and no ideas on how to advance negotiations.”

The government wants to boost high school class sizes from last year’s average of 22 to 25, down from its original plan for 28, and introduce two mandatory online courses. No other jurisdiction in North America requires two such credits, although a handful of U.S. states like Florida and Alabama mandate one.

The changes are unpopular with the public, and opposed by school boards as well as the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, which represents the province’s 2 million students.

Even moving to an average of 22.5 this school year “is already having effects,” said association spokesperson Cameron Prosic.

“There are reduced supports in classes, it reduces the amount of caring adults in schools” and teens have fewer course choices, he said.

The government is offering teachers a one per cent wage increase — in line with its recent salary-cap legislation — with OSSTF seeking a cost-of-living increase of about 2 per cent.

Lecce said the union “(continues) to focus on further enhancements to their compensation package, which if applied to the (entire education) sector would cost approximately $1.5 billion” in the third year of a deal, assuming a two per cent wage increase as well as a six per cent boost to funding for benefits.

He has been urging the union to accept the help of a private mediator, saying that move helped land a deal in October with support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

CUPE agreed to a one per cent raise each year for three years, as well as a one per cent boost to benefits funding.

Before talks were called off, Premier Doug Ford, speaking on AM640 on Monday, said “we’re going to continue working hard.”

He said his government has “a great deal of respect for the teachers, the students, and the taxpayers that are footing the bill for this and we want to make sure everyone has a fair deal. Most importantly, we want to keep our kids in the classroom.”

OSSTF’s first daylong strike, held Dec. 4, was province-wide, and last week’s hit nine boards. This week’s walkout will impact 12 boards.

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OSSTF represents public high school teachers, as well as support workers and professional staff like psychologists — who work in public, Catholic and French boards — so some elementary schools will also be shut down by the job action.

The boards impacted Wednesday are: Lakehead, Thunder Bay, Lambton Kent, Thames Valley, Waterloo, Waterloo Catholic, York, York Catholic, Halton and Kawartha Pine Ridge, as well as a number of schools in Conseil scolaire de district catholique MonAvenir and Conseil scolaire Viamonde.

The York Region boards encompass Lecce’s King-Vaughan riding.

With files from Rob Ferguson

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