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‘Nothing is off the table’ in Ontario government’s talks with teachers, education minister says

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The union representing Ontario’s public high school teachers filed for conciliation Friday, saying contracts talks with the provincial government have stalled.

The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation called the talks with the government and school boards, which started this month, “extremely frustrating and disappointing.”

Harvey Bischof said the union has asked for help from a conciliation officer for future talks even as its members hold strike votes across the province which will wrap up Nov. 15.

“The government has not responded in any substantive way to any of our proposals after five days of negotiations,” he said.

The move by the OSSTF comes days after the Elementary Teachers’ of Ontario (ETFO), which represents public primary school educators, filed for conciliation saying its talks with the government were also at a standstill.

Bischof said the conciliation request does not signal an end to talks, and bargaining dates remain set for later this month and early November. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Friday the government remains committed to bargaining with both elementary and secondary school teachers in good faith.

“I’m calling on both ETFO and OSSTF to focus on coming to an agreement at the table,” he said.

Negotiators ready to meet with unions any time

The government has said it intends to cap wage increases for public sector workers at one per cent, and indicated last week it will make that ask of teachers during these contract talks.

Lecce said while “everything is on the table” when it comes to teacher talks, he later backtracked and stressed that he meant government negotiators were ready to meet with the unions at any time.

The minister said the province wants to focus spending in the education system on front-line resources that help students. 

“What I have said broadly is that I’m prepared to be reasonable on the big challenges at the table,” he said. “But I want the focus to be on moving resources (to) the front of the class.” 

The OSSTF has said it’s not interested in accepting the government’s wage increase cap and has proposed a “cost-of-living adjustment” based on a formula linked to the Consumer Price Index. 

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The current rate of that increase would come in around two per cent but that could change if the economy sputters, the union argues. 

10,000 fewer teachers in the public school system

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government should get serious about the contract talks.

“I’m frustrated that this minister and his government don’t seem to be rolling up their sleeves to negotiate a good agreement that is going to keep our kids in classrooms,” she said.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Lecce’s comments force a choice between funding for classrooms and fairly compensating teachers.

“I hope all sides can get these negotiations back on track to strike a fair deal for teachers and to keep students in school,” he said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the government ordered school boards to start increasing class sizes, moving to an average for high school from 22 to 28 students over four years. Class sizes for grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom, from 23 to 24.

Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer has said the move would result in 10,000 fewer teachers in the public school system over the next five years. 

Earlier this month, the government reached a deal with CUPE, which represents 55,000 education workers, after the union gave a strike notice.

Under the tentative agreement, the union representing custodians, early childhood educators and others agreed to a one per cent wage increase while the Tories agreed to restore as many as 1,500 jobs. 

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