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Ontario backs down on class sizes, e-learning in teacher negotiations


TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservative government almost entirely backed down Tuesday on two of the major issues for teachers in a bitter round of contract negotiations that has been marked by escalating strikes and acrimony.

Long before bargaining started last year, the government announced new mandatory e-learning courses and large increases to high school class sizes, angering teachers and setting the stage for tense talks.

Partial backtracks late last year from the government did nothing to quell the growing labour unrest and Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Tuesday announced a near-total capitulation on both fronts.

Ontario is now offering an increase in average high school class sizes to 23 — just one student over last year's levels, and a far cry from the 28-student average class the province initially announced.

"We have been negotiating for hundreds and hundreds of days with an impasse," Lecce said at a press conference. "The ball is in their court now. We've made a significant move that is in the interest of students."

But as part of the new offer, the government is not budging beyond an offer to increase wages and benefits by one per cent a year, and wants concessions on a regulation that dictates seniority-based hiring.

Lecce said the government will continue to develop a new online learning system, but an opt-out will be added, so there won't be any mandatory requirements for graduation.

"We believe that online learning provides a multitude of benefits for students, particularly when it comes to diversifying the course offerings and really embracing 21st-century learning," Lecce said. "But at the end of the day we have listened and heard that parents want to be in the driver's seat of that decision."

Lecce has long maintained that the teachers' unions were prioritizing salary and benefit increases, with asks on benefits in particular well above what the government is offering. He said Tuesday that the only reason the teacher talks were still at an impasse is because of disagreements on benefits and hiring practices. The unions disagreed.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, called Lecce's press conference an "amateur" stunt that interrupted actual exploratory talks Bischof's union was having with the government on Tuesday.

"We were still in active discussions and this minister chose to roll a hand grenade out on the table," he said. "I would like to see him bring proposals to the bargaining table."

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association said Tuesday it would accept the one per cent wage increase if the province backed down on class sizes and mandatory e-learning, though it would continue with a court challenge to government wage restraint legislation.

President Liz Stuart said OECTA will return to the bargaining table Wednesday, but noted an average class size of 23 is still an increase over last year's levels, and would still lead to lost jobs and fewer course offerings for students.

The unions also noted that when the government previously backed down to a 25-student class average, the move came with a "poison pill" because local class-size limits would be removed, essentially allowing the province to see the number of students per class climb indefinitely.

Lecce wouldn't confirm Tuesday if that was still part of the offer, saying those discussions will happen at the bargaining table.

The minister said his proposals aren't new to the unions, but they said Tuesday was the first they had heard of them.

"The unions have known about — in some cases for weeks — about our classroom size decision, and yet we still remain today to be negotiating because of outstanding issues largely around benefit asks or ... language related to merit-based hiring."

All four major teachers' unions have been engaging in various strikes during this contentious round of bargaining, and Lecce on Tuesday urged them to call off future planned strikes — including some set for Thursday.

Elementary teachers have said their key issues include guaranteeing the future of full-day kindergarten, securing more funding to hire special education teachers, and maintaining seniority hiring rules. Lecce also said Tuesday the government will commit to maintaining the same level of special education funding as in a fund from previous contracts, though with different terms.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario noted that Lecce is not reversing the elementary class-size increase of about one student per class, to an average of 24.5. It took effect this year. ETFO president Sam Hammond said he is also not satisfied by the special education commitment, which he characterized as partial.

"We have learned from past experience that Minister Lecce's public announcements do not necessarily translate into negotiating proposals at the table," Hammond said in a statement. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 3, 2020.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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