By Kirk Winter

            From my experience working in education, March was always a busy month in Ontario schools.

            Option sheets at the secondary panel were complete, kindergarten registrations were all but done, senior staff at the Board Office were crunching numbers and in some cases, staffing for the following school year was well underway if not complete.

            Two weeks ago, the Deputy Minister of Education suggested to boards that the hiring of additional staff for 2019/2020 should be put on hold, and that a further announcement would be forthcoming on March 15.

            The announcement came down and employees of both the secondary and elementary system have been left reeling by the thumbnail sketch of the future of education presented in Toronto by the Minister Lisa Thompson.

            The budget, to be presented by Finance Minister Vic Fedeli sometime in April, will provide the myriad of detail to the Minister’s brief announcement on the 15th, and teacher representatives are expecting the worst.

            Harvey Bischof, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation that represents over 60,000 educational workers in Ontario, released a very strongly worded statement to the press that laid down the gauntlet for negotiations with the Ford Conservatives.

            Bischof stated, “With these announcements the government has declared war on Ontario’s public education system, and OSSTF’s response in defence of that system will be commensurate.”

            Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario took to the Toronto Star with a full page add decrying the cuts announced on March 15, using the tag line, “Cuts Hurt Kids.”

            As you are reading this article, both federations are still waiting on what are called “technical documents” from the Ministry that will help the teachers understand just some of the following questions that they have:

1.     Kindergarten has apparently survived the chopping block for now, but the Ministry refused to answer the question as to who will be delivering curriculum in those classes next year: a teacher, a teacher and an ECE as currently exist or two ECEs?

2.     The Minister promised that no jobs in education would be lost. If she is planning on simply not hiring any new staff to replace retiring teachers, just how many staff do the Conservatives think are going to retire over the next three years, and what happens to their numbers when teachers, for a series of legitimate reasons, continue teaching well beyond their retirement date? Federation estimates of job losses begin at 3,630 and plateau at close to 18,000 depending upon the scenarios assumed.

3.     Rumours still abound of some kind of early retirement package to be announced this year. Some say the package would allow, for this year only, staff with less than the 85 factor to retire without pension punishment. Is this the other shoe that is going to fall that will make layoffs unnecessary?

4.     The Conservatives claim that their “extensive public consultations” largely drove these announcements. Media who followed the public consultations were unaware of a single presentation that suggested massively larger class sizes at high school was anything anyone wanted or felt would be beneficial.

5.     With fewer secondary teachers through a three-year program of attrition, and remaining teachers looking at a massive increase in workload and marking as classes grow from an average of 22 to an average of 28, who is going to coach or run clubs as teachers could step away from these voluntary activities in their thousands?

6.     Through public consultation, what group suggested that all secondary students should take four of their 30 credits online with some kind of yet-to-be identified and possibly private entity subcontracted by the province to the lowest possible bidder? There are still parts of CKL and Trent Lakes without cell phone reception, let alone streaming broadband necessary to support most current on-line learning.

7.     On April 1,2019  hundreds, if not thousands, of Special Needs students with autism will be returning from private programming to public schools now that their grants have been slashed. The province has announced no additional money beyond the standard per pupil grant for any of these challenged students, and the announcement on March 15 promised a reduction of 5.88 percent to the overall Grants for Special Needs. How will these students be effectively integrated and receive the level of individual service they deserve?

8.     What public consultation suggested that now was a time to cut $1.4 billion out of public education? These cuts would be the largest cuts made to education since the Harris/Ecker cuts in the early 2000s.

            These, and dozens of other, questions may or may not be answered over the next four weeks as the details behind these educational “reforms” are rolled out. The only guarantee on March 16 is that the school year beginning in September 2019 will not be a normal one, and likely the labour strife that marked the Harris era will be back in spades as the four teacher federations and CUPE representing over 215,000 educational workers prepare to battle the Ford Conservatives.

EducationDeb Crossen