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One-day strike to close region’s Catholic schools on Tuesday

[Faisal Ali / The Observer]

Catholic schools across the region will be closed Tuesday as the union representing their teachers looks to get the province back to the bargaining table.

Members of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) had launched job action this week, refusing to take part in administrative duties. The decision to withdraw their services province-wide on January 21 came as talks came to a standstill – a mediator last week adjourned negotiations between the two sides, saying they were too far apart.

“We’re in a wait-and-see situation for the [mediator] or government to say we can get back to the table,” said OECTA president Liz Stuart on Tuesday. “We stand ready to get back.”

The 45,000-member union remains at odds with the government on issues such as class sizes, kindergarten programming and course availability to students.

By walking off the job next week, the union hopes to “incent the government” to resume negotiations.

“We’re feeling a little discouraged,” said Stuart, adding the teachers aren’t keen to leave the classroom.

“Any withdrawal of services – we understand the disruption that goes with that,” she said.

Stuart said the unions and government negotiators used to share some common ground as they worked for the benefit of the education system, but the Ford administration seems focused only on cutting costs.

“To them, education is an expense that must be cut rather than an investment.”

For its part, the province has maintained its changes will improve the system while getting a handle on ever-rising costs. In a statement, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce blames the stalemate on the unions.

“The last three decades, parents and students have experienced labour strife in education, regardless of the political stripe of the government. While I am disappointed in the teacher unions’ continued focus on escalation that hurts our students, our government will remain focused on improving public education and keeping students in class.”

“Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says the government is being reasonable and bargaining in good faith, but we have been told explicitly by their negotiating team that they have no mandate or authority to reach an agreement that does not include significant, permanent cuts,” Stuart countered.

The impasse has led to the job action that will close all schools in the Waterloo Catholic District School Board on Tuesday, though any community uses of the buildings are still a go.

“We remain hopeful the two sides will return to the bargaining table quickly and will come to a fair and respectful agreement that serves the best interests of our students,” said WCDSB chief managing officer John Shewchuk in an email.

Following the one-day strike, the union has no immediate plans for a repeat performance, particularly ahead of upcoming high school exams, said Stuart.

“If there’s no action, we’ll have to look at our next steps.”

OECTA has a strong mandate for action, with 97.1 per cent voting last November in favour of the strike option if necessary, she added.

At the public board, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) this week gave notice to school boards that it anticipates to begin rotating strikes.

“This is a wake-up call for Ford and his Education Minister Stephen Lecce to get serious about negotiating a deal that supports students and educators,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond in a statement. “We have been clear that, after five months of no progress at the table, we will commence rotating strikes if a deal is not reached by this Friday.”

ETFO represents 83,000 elementary public school teachers, occasional teachers and education professionals across the province.

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