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Strike-averting deal with Ontario education workers includes $20M to bring back laid off support staff
Oct. 8, 2019
Kristin Rushowy, Robert Benzie and Isabel Teotonio

The provincial government will spend $20 million a year to ensure hundreds of support staff who were laid off last month return to Ontario schools -- and another $58 million annually to help create more support for special education students.

The tentative deal reached Sunday night between the province, school boards and 55,000 school support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees -- who include educational assistants, early childhood educators, custodians and office staff -- means the Toronto District School Board will be able to rehire dozens of workers who lost their jobs because of budget cuts.

For some, the new contract -- and the more than $230 million in additional funding -- bodes well for ongoing negotiations with teacher unions.

“I think (the CUPE deal) builds some momentum to drive positive deals for kids in this province,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon.

“I am going to remain cautiously optimistic there is a pathway,” he added, if all sides are willing to negotiate in good faith.

Teachers, however -- especially at the secondary level -- are fighting a tougher battle with the province over larger class sizes and the resulting loss of thousands of jobs over the next four years, plus an unprecedented move to mandate four online courses in high school with even bigger student-teacher ratios.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said CUPE’s deal could impact negotiations for his 60,000 members, who include teachers and some support staff.

“There is cause for some cautious optimism inasmuch as the government seems to have recognized the value for the services that staff provide in our schools,” said Bischof. “It really depends on how they (the province) approach that teacher table … The government has launched very different kinds of attacks on different parts of the education system.”

The Doug Ford government, he added, is “bent on slashing 10,000 teaching positions out of the system -- one out of every four high school teachers -- and there is no path forward without restoration.”

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which represents 45,000 elementary, secondary and occasional teachers, said she is “hopeful we’ll be able to achieve a deal for our members as well.

“At this point in time we feel we’re engaged in productive dialogue,” she said. “As long as the government and the trustees association come to the table and we’re able to all bargain together in good faith, we have every hope that we, too, will be able to find a deal.”

The three-year CUPE deal, which retains all sick day benefits but caps workers’ wage increases at one per cent each year, was reached Sunday night after a weekend of last-ditch talks to stave off a strike Monday that would have shuttered hundreds of schools across the province.

For parents, the deal means “services return to their schools,” said Laura Walton, who heads the union’s school board unit. “Lots of those jobs went missing over the summer.”

She said cleanliness standards should improve, more educational assistants will be in schools and libraries will be open longer.

Despite the deal, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath blasted Premier Ford for giving parents a weekend of “uncertainty.”

“He needs to go back and reverse the cuts and invest in our education system,” she told reporters. “We ended up on the brink of chaos (Sunday) night and that’s no way to treat families or education workers for that matter.”

During talks, the government had focused on sick days and short-term leave. CUPE workers take an average of more than 15 days off a year, which is costly and leads to a “revolving door” of staff for students to deal with, Lecce has said.

In the end, the sides agreed to a standardized medical form for any workers seeking to take time off beyond the 11 sick days that are paid at 100 per cent and dip into the 120-day short-term disability plan at 90 per cent pay.

The deal is said to provide consistency provincewide, given some boards had policies on doctor notes and others did not.

The $20-million fund will revive 300 full-time-equivalent positions with job protections for the life of the three-year contract -- although there is an out for boards if enrolment declines or funding is cut.

The government also reinstated a yearly $58.3-million local priorities fund, which is mainly for educational assistants to aid students with special needs.

CUPE negotiated a separate $600,000 annual fund that will pay for custodians to work after-hours when community groups take out permits to use school facilities.

The government did not renew a professional development fund of roughly $4.5 million.

John Weatherup, president of Toronto Education Workers CUPE Local 4400, said the deal will see 60 to 70 special education staff back in the city’s public schools.

“It still won’t be enough, but at least it’s putting people back into the classrooms,” he said.

University of Toronto professor Charles Pascal, a former deputy minister of education, said “the pressure from parents and the public at large was clearly on the side of CUPE workers. And true to form, the minister ran to the front of the parade to take credit for avoiding a mess of his own creation.”

Lecce, however, said no one at the negotiating table wanted to inconvenience families with a strike. He said the government focused on keeping kids in class and investing “in the front lines of education.”

Markham mother Kimberly Clark was not expecting a resolution, so she lined up a week’s worth of activities for her children -- and because she’s a real estate agent with flexible hours, she even offered to look after other kids.

When news of the deal broke late Sunday, her children begged her to keep a play date with friends on Monday, so Clark let them stay home.

“It’s one day -- it’s not going to hurt, we’ll keep our plans and go back to regular school (on Tuesday),” she said.