As schools prepare to welcome students back on Tuesday, teachers in the Grand Erie District School Board have more than class lists on their minds.
Board chair Rita Collver and vice-chair David Dean sent a strongly worded letter to Education Minister Laurel Broten flatly rejecting the province’s approach to teacher contract negotiations.
Premier Dalton McGuinty recalled the legislature two weeks early to debate a bill that would force teachers unions to accept the terms of a wage freeze deal reached with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and francophone teachers union in July.
That agreement freezes teacher salaries, halves sick days and bans strikes for two years. It also imposes unpaid professional development days, in exchange for younger teachers still being allowed to progress up the salary grid.
More troubling to Collver, the original legislation, which has since been modified to win support from the provincial Conservatives, would force school boards to hire occasional teachers based on seniority rather than merit, and allow teachers to unilaterally opt out of student assessment tests that Grand Erie currently runs board-wide.
“The main sticking point is seniority,” Collver said. “Now, we don’t hire by seniority. We hire the best candidate, the best teacher, to fit that particular position.”
Forcing principals to pick from a seniority list penalizes younger teachers who lack experience, she added.
Tests like the Developmental Reading Assessment provide “baseline data” on student strengths and needs that allow the board to allocate resources appropriately. An ad hoc approach to testing would produce incomplete data and limit accountability, Collver said.
The cash-strapped government is taking a hard line on teacher contracts to avoid having to pay $473 million in wage increases and to prevent teachers from continuing to bank sick days that can be cashed out at retirement.
Collver said trustees have no problem with the financial terms of the OECTA deal but they think matters of seniority and diagnostic testing should be left to individual boards and unions and not legislated into collective agreements.
“Those don’t belong in legislation. Let us bargain with our local unions and see what we can come up with,” she said.
Several hundred Grand Erie teachers and support staff joined their colleagues at a protest outside Queen’s Park on Tuesday.
Trustees plan to adhere to provincial labour legislation and continue bargaining with the local Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario into the fall.
Collver was unsure how the board would cover additional salary and sick day costs should the contract roll over.
Brant’s Catholic schools face a smoother start to the year after the Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic District School Board agreed to the terms of the OECTA deal well ahead of the government’s Sept. 1 deadline.
Collver said local public schools will be open on Sept. 4 even if talks between the board and the government are ongoing.