TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the lack of progress in contract talks with public school teachers even after the government’s concessions on class size and e-learning shows the ongoing dispute is all about compensation.
Ford levelled the criticism at the province’s four major teachers’ unions during debate at the provincial legislature Thursday morning, as educators marched around the building, protesting the contentious talks.
On Tuesday, the Progressive Conservative government offered to increase average high school class sizes from 22 last year to 23 next year — instead of the government’s original target of 28 — and allow an opt-out for e-learning courses the Tories previously said would be mandatory.
The premier said Thursday the moves should have paved the way to deals with the unions, but because it hasn’t yet resulted in progress, it shows the real issue keeping the parties from an agreement is teachers’ pay.
“My message to the unions is that the party is over with the taxpayers money,” Ford said. “Pack your bags and get back into the classroom.”
The teachers’ unions have said they would not sign a deal that included class size increases and mandatory online learning — two of the cost-cutting measures the government said were necessary to balance the books.
The government has offered teachers a one per cent pay increase, while teachers are asking for closer to two per cent.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday the government has made “reasonable moves” at the table that would effectively freeze class sizes, offer a parental opt out for online learning, and a commitment to full-day kindergarten.
“It’s time for the unions to get off the lawn and get back to the table,” he said.
Meanwhile, teachers with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association carried banners and signs around the legislature Thursday morning, calling on the government to bargain in good faith.
The protests were part of larger province-wide job actions held by unions in the French and English Catholic school systems.
Some public high school teachers also held a walkouts at nine school boards as part of their union’s ongoing series of rotating, one-day strikes.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said Thursday that the government’s latest offer would still result in the loss of nearly 1,800 teacher jobs and thousands of course offerings.
Harvey Bischof said the government presented its latest position with “no flexibility,”, leading the union to conclude they could not return to talks.
“They clearly laid out, essentially, take it or leave it proposals that cut off any avenue to a deal,” he said. “There are several aspects of what we were talking about they had established as essentially bottom lines with no flexibility.”
Bischof said he believes parents continue to support the teachers in the tense contract talks, despite the new government position on class size and e-learning.
“I’m not concerned that the public will suddenly decide that they want to support cuts to the quality of their children’s education,” he said. “(Lecce is) still talking about cutting thousands and thousands of course options out of the system.”
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association was in talks with the government Thursday and did not immediately provide comment.
OSSTF currently has no dates scheduled to meet with the government.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said Thursday it does not currently have any talks with the government scheduled.
That union has said if contract deals aren’t reached by Friday, it will begin a new phase of strikes effective Monday.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government needs to get back to the bargaining table.
“The minister keeps negotiating at a podium and a microphone and he should be at the bargaining table with education workers,” she said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser questioned whether the apparent change in government position is actually a concession at all.
“It still looks like they’re making class sizes larger,” he said. “It’s unclear if the commitment they’ve made runs the length of the contract. It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to sit down at the table and say ‘here are the words.'”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said even a class size increase from 22 to 23 students will result in teacher layoffs and hurt students.
“The government has created chaos in our education system,” he said. “I respect parents, teachers, students, education workers, for standing up and speaking out against it.”