By Doug Hallett
While public high school teachers prepare for a strike vote, top officials of both local school boards are questioning the process that led to a two-year deal between the province and the union representing Ontario’s Catholic teachers.
The fact that the deal was reached after the association representing Ontario’s Catholic school boards had left the bargaining table is of great concern to the province’s public school boards, Bob Borden, chair of the Upper Grand District School Board, said Monday.
By reaching the deal announced Thursday without the Catholic trustees’ association being present, the provincial government has “ignored its own mantra” that school boards are supposed to be “the voice of the ratepayer in the community,” he said in an interview. “What we have here is a precedent-changing agreement . . . a huge game changer,” Borden said.
The Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association walked away late last Wednesday, after spending months at the bargaining table, because it didn’t appear a deal was possible, said Don Drone, director of education at the Wellington Catholic District School Board. Drone is also the current chair of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, a body made up of the top administrators at Ontario’s 72 public, Catholic and French-speaking school boards.
Ontario’s directors of education are concerned about the autonomy of local school boards, and the boards seem to have been “ignored at the last minute,” said Drone.
Thursday’s announcement that the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association had signed a memorandum of agreement with the province for a two-year contract deal set off a bitter war of words between the province’s three main teachers’ unions.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation issued a statement saying the Catholic deal is “not acceptable” to its members, who “will be taking strike votes from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7.”
The deal struck by Catholic teachers “is not a blueprint for anyone to follow,” said a statement issued Friday by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
Both the OSSTF and ETFO walked away from the provincial bargaining table some time ago.
Borden said he didn’t attach much significance to the secondary school teachers’ federation’s strike vote announcement. The union is just “going through its processes to put itself in a position where it can react,” he said.
Of greater importance is the federation’s position that it is willing to return to the table if invited to do so by the province, Borden said. “I think that is much more important than the strike vote.”
Borden wouldn’t comment on the content of the deal between the province and the Catholic teachers’ union.
Drone said he was concerned the deal might financially undermine the budgets for the coming school year that have already been passed by Ontario’s Catholic school boards.
The deal “appears to contain a certain amount of fiscal responsibility, but the devil is in the details,” Drone said in an interview Thursday.
Catholic teachers agreed to a two-year wage freeze, but the memorandum of agreement also says younger teachers will move along the salary grid – which the government had previously said wouldn’t happen over the next two years.
To help pay for movement along this experience-linked grid, Catholic teachers, principals and vice-principals will take three unpaid days off on professional development days during the 2013-14 school year.
The government says the three unpaid days will amount to a 1.5 per cent pay cut.
As well as wage concessions, the province has been demanding changes in sick leave provisions for Ontario teachers. Under the deal struck with the English Catholic teachers’ association, teachers will no longer be allowed to bank sick days and their allotment of 20 sick days a year will be cut to 10, the province says.
However, the sick days that have already been banked will be protected and can be cashed out by teachers at retirement.
After being attacked Friday by the two public teachers’ unions, the Catholic teachers struck back.
“School boards are facing a funding reduction of $2 billion,” OECTA president Kevin O’Dwyer said in a news release.
“Some unions may choose to negotiate with cash-strapped school boards in the hope of improving circumstances for their members,” O’Dwyer said. “OECTA made the decision to negotiate an agreement with the government that minimizes the impact of those cuts on our members while protecting student learning.”
Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan also issued a statement Friday, saying the deal with OECTA “sends a strong signal that the McGuinty government and its broader public sector partners can reach agreements that allow Ontario to protect the gains we have made in schools and health care, while staying on track to meet our fiscal targets and eliminating the deficit.”
Wellington Catholic District School Board chair Marino Gazzola refused to comment on the situation involving OECTA.
Gazzola, who is the current chair of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, said he’s referring all media enquiries to his provincial vice-president. He has declared a conflict because he has one daughter who is a teacher and another who is an educational assistant, and both of them would be affected financially by the outcome of the negotiations, he said in an interview.