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New funding for schools, teacher salaries far from enough, warn unions, school boards

CP News, 9 March 2000

PICKERING, Ont. (CP) -- Educators fear $190 million in provincial education spending announced Thursday is not enough to forestall another round of labour strife before the beginning of the fall school term.

Along with the funding came word the province will impose a tough new definition of instructional time on school boards and require teachers to volunteer for extra-curricular activity.

But Education Minister Janet Ecker she insisted she's not trying to draw a line in the sand.

"I am launching no war against anyone," Ecker told a news conference at a Catholic high school east of Toronto.

"I am putting out a package of additional resources and clear expectations that is going to allow us to move forward with our important education quality reforms in a fair and reasonable way."

Ecker had barely finished detailing the plans before board officials and union leaders attacked the package as inadequate.

"The minister has threatened the education community in Ontario to knuckle down and do as they're told," fumed Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.

"That doesn't bode well in a democratic society."

More schools will close, more teachers will quit and those who remain will be forced to cut back the time they spend with individual students as a result of school board funding shortfalls, Manners predicted.

Strikes by teachers come September are "certainly a possibility," said Liz Sandals, head of the Ontario Public School Boards Association.

"The boards will obviously work very, very hard to try to prevent that, to reach collective agreements with our teachers, but it takes two to reach a collective agreement."

It wouldn't be the first time the battle between Ontario and its educators forced students out of the classroom.

In 1997, some 126,000 teachers staged a provincewide illegal strike to protest the province's controversial funding formula and changes to the education system under Bill 160.

Last fall, support staff with the Toronto's public school board renewed the protest by walking off the job for two weeks, forcing dozen of city high schools to close.

But Ecker insisted Thursday that the package was "fair and reasonable" and will allow boards plenty of leeway when they sit down to negotiate new agreements with teachers' unions.

The announcement included $10 million to hire up to 100 more principals and $182 million for salary increases for board workers.

All told, the grants add up to a net increase in funding of $190 million, bringing the annual education budget to $13.4 billion.

But some 150,000 teachers, none of whom have had a raise since 1993, will have to share in that increase, which likely wouldn't even cover the cost of inflation, said Manners.

The government's strict new definition of "instructional time" no longer includes the "on-call" time a teacher spends away from the classroom and eliminates "double-counting," when an absent teacher can claim time along with his or her substitute.

Ecker also said she's anxious to see teachers continue to participate in extra-curricular activities, which are not considered instructional time. But she stopped short of saying the government would pass a law forcing teachers to participate.

The minister said much the same thing about the Greater Essex County School Board, which decided Tuesday to run an illegal deficit rather than impose further spending cuts. Cutting $12 million to meet provincial funding guidelines would threaten French immersion and special education programs, says the board, caretaker to 35,000 students.

The relationship between school boards and the province has been acrimonious since 1997, when they lost their ability to raise money through local taxes under a new provincial funding formula.