ALMAGUIN – An unprecedented move by the province might mean the end of extra-curricular activities for students.
“I think a lot of teachers will be reassessing what they do with their volunteer time now that they have been disrespected in this way,” said Glen Hodgson, president of the Near North District branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF).
Following the passing of the Putting Students First Act on Tuesday, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO), which represents 76,000 elementary school teachers and education professionals across the province, called for a pause on voluntary activities.
“That’s a very important part of school,” said Near North District School Board Trustee Al Bottomley. “I don’t think people realize just how much teachers put into this. If they withdraw volunteer services it will be detrimental.”
The act gives the government power to impose contracts on teachers and ban strikes for at least two years in efforts to fight the $14.8-billion deficit.
Although Hodgson said no educator wants to see students suffer, he acknowledged it is up to the individual staff member to decide what’s best for them.
“They have completely insulted educators and education professionals,” he said. “We have never been in favour of any strike action. But we’re not afraid to stand up for ourselves.”
The Putting Students First Act is based on the memorandum of understanding between the government and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA).
The act gives school boards, teachers and support staff until Dec. 31 to engage in local collective bargaining and accept agreements consistent with the government's fiscal and policy priorities, including maintaining investments in full-day kindergarten, keeping class sizes small and protecting funds earmarked for the classroom.
“They made a mistake by hitting teachers in the head with this. I wish they had taken another route,” said Bottomley. “I really hope this blows over because the last thing I want to see is a war. For eight years we’ve had no labour issues and now that has changed overnight.”
On Aug. 27, the provincial legislature was called in early in order to table the proposed document in the hopes of having it passed before the end of the month, prior to teachers’ contract expiry on Sept. 1.
That target wasn’t met. But the act was passed September 11, with a tally of 82 to 15 votes.
“It’s a sad day. Not just for teachers, but for democracy,” Hodgson said. “I never thought I would see a day where the Liberals and Conservatives were so aligned.”
The Putting Students First Act is retroactive to September 1 and requires that any automatic pay increases received after August 31 be paid back.
According to the government, over the next two years, the Putting Students First Act will save taxpayers $2 billion. But the decision has left school staff soured.
“Trustee (Al) Bottomley was elected by the people to represent them at the board and they have taken away his ability to do the job he was elected to do,” Hodgson said. “We have maintained a respectful relationship with the board, which was completely disregarded.”
The government has already signed agreements with OECTA and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, which together represent more than half of Ontario’s school boards and 55,000 teachers.
The government has also signed an agreement with the Association of Professional Student Services Personnel and almost 3,000 education assistants.
“We’re still negotiating (with the board), but in some very strange conditions,” said Hodgson, noting the strict parameters set out by the act.
“I don’t think the general public understands that this was never about a wage freeze. We agreed to the wage freeze in January. It was about taking away our right to collectively bargain before we even had a chance to negotiate with our elected trustees,” said Hodgson, noting it isn’t only those affected by the Putting Students First Act that should be concerned.
“Who will they be coming after next?” he questioned. “It’s a slippery slope.”