Writer objects to perceived assumptions in Expositor editorial

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To the Expositor:

I am writing this in response to the September 26 editorial entitled ‘Teachers should avoid the McGuinty Trap,’ page 4. As a teacher I was offended by many of the assumptions you made in this editorial. One thing Carleton Journalism Professor, Joe Scanlon, taught me was that to “assume” was to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

First of all, I’ll address the assumption that I have seen a “significant increase in remunerations.” In a sense, you are quite right. I make more money than I did when I started with the old Manitoulin Board of Education. However, I think that an increase based on 17 years of experience, as well as several university courses, including two teacher specific additional qualification courses make that fairly reasonable. Most people gain salary and/or wage increases with job experience and professional training, and I know that goods and service costs have certainly increased since I signed my first contract in 1995. I have a great job with a steady paycheque. I work with great kids, and I love seeing their eyes light up when they “get it.” If you’re assuming I’m not thankful for that, you are wrong.

Your next assumption deals with the “significant drop in teachers’ workloads.” I will not assume to speak on behalf of other teachers, but for myself, I have seen no decrease in class size or work load in the last 17 years. My first year as a teacher saw me looking out at a class of 30 students in a Grade 5/6 class at C.C. McLean Public School. Today, when I surveyed my Grade 7/8 class at the same school, I counted 32 faces looking back at me. I still do three reports (one progress report and two report cards), I am responsible for more standardized testing, as well as the many other items I was responsible for in 1995.

Your entire editorial is based on the assumption that I (and my colleagues) are upset because our wages have been frozen and our right to strike removed. I will tell you that on my own behalf, that particular assumption is incorrect—I’m unhappy about those items, but that really isn’t what has me concerned.

I’m afraid of Bill 115 and the potential it has to effect everyone in the province. The Minister of Education and the Ontario government have told people this is about “Putting Students First.” They’ve told the electorate what is “palatable” about this legislation—it freezes teachers’ wages and ensures no labour disruptions to the parents of school age children. It does that, I can’t argue with that.

But I’ve also read the legislation (not just the press releases from either the government or my federation) and this is what else it does:

It allows the minister to “impose a collective agreement on the board” (Section 9.2.i) if one isn’t reached by December 31, 2012. This means that even if the local teachers federations and the Rainbow District School Board are still working at the negotiating process in good faith, and there is no strike, the Minister can still effectively “tear up” agreements that have been negotiated in good faith for years. That gives the minister a lot of power, and our local elected officials none! Negotiating is a give and take process. It worked for years before Mr. McGuinty and his provincial discussion table came into effect; the government told the boards how much money they had to spend, and local negotiations determined how it was spent. It was democratic—and it worked.

Section 14 (1) states “The Ontario Labour Relations Board shall not inquire into or make a decision on whether a provision of this Act, a regulation or an order made under subsection 9 (2) is constitutionally valid or is in conflict with the Human Rights Code.” If that doesn’t scare you, it should. This takes away the right of an employee to ask for assistance from the OLRB, and says the OLRB can’t even make an inquiry—that kind of makes me wonder why no questions can be asked about whether it’s in conflict with the Human Rights Code. And if the government can do this to teachers, who else is next?

But the really scary part to me is Section 15 (1). In case you don’t want to look up the legislation, here’s what it says: “No term or condition included in an employment contract or collective agreement under or by virtue of this Act, process for consultation prescribed under this Act, or decision, approval, act, advice, direction, regulation or order made by the minister or Lieutenant Governor in Council under this Act shall be questioned or reviewed in any court.” This puts the minister above the law, above the courts, a law unto herself. Does this frighten anyone else? Because I’m not smelling democracy here—it’s something far more insidious.

This legislation annoys me as a teacher, but if it were “just” about money and the right to strike, I’d probably remained annoyed and not frightened. I started my teaching career at the end of the “Social Contract” and survived the “Common Sense Revolution” too. I’ll tell you, though, as a citizen of Ontario and a resident of Manitoulin Island, I see far bigger issues with Bill 115.

I pulled out my 1995 era contract with the then Manitoulin Board of Education. Our forward thinking local politicians in that era had negotiated the following class size caps: “The size of each class as of the first Friday of September and the first Friday of January shall be no more than: JK & SK 18 + or -2, Primary 22 + or -2, Junior 24 + or -2 and Intermediate 26 + or -2 and a classroom assistant will be supplied for any increase above 20 in JK or K if requested by the teacher.” (I don’t see that as being tremendously different than the Primary Class size cap and “average class size” numbers touted by Mr. McGuinty at the moment, to be honest, and that was in 1995.) Following amalgamation in the Mike Harris era, the MBE was “swallowed” by its larger neighbour and the Rainbow District School Board was created. I remember that there was much unhappiness on Manitoulin during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when various issues arose and local people voiced their displeasure with the rules and regulations and “made in Sudbury” solutions to local issues which did not meet Island needs. While our local trustee represents us well, he is but one voice on a board. When I look at the sweeping powers Bill 115 gives the minister (and Ministry of Education), I can’t help but wonder if the final plan is to get rid of local governance all together? If the minister has the right to impose contracts, what exactly will be the point of the local board? The RDSB has always had the power to negotiate contracts with its employees, tender contracts for work and supplies, and create regulations which suit the needs of our communities in Northern Ontario. If it is no longer needed to negotiate contracts, what other “powers” will be stripped from it? How long will it take for the Minister and the Ministry of Education to decide that perhaps all education decisions for all of Ontario could be made from Toronto. If you didn’t like a “Made in Sudbury Solution” a decade ago, I’m pretty sure a “Made in Toronto” one isn’t going to be a whole lot more palatable.

The government can hide behind its press releases about how this legislation is about “Putting Students First.” It makes everyone focus on how “petulant” the teachers are behaving, and how they are withdrawing services from “innocent children” (as the editor so gravely put it). It certainly seems to have distracted people from the ORNGE debacle, the Green Energy fiasco, and, of course, the complete disruption of democracy in the province!

I would encourage everyone to actually read what’s in Bill 115. Get past the taking away the right to strike, freezing teachers’ wages and cutting back their sick days. Look past that. Look into the powers it gives the government. Look at those powers carefully and think about how they could be applied to any other piece of legislation, because if it can be done to teachers and school boards, it can be done to any other unionized workers and any other regulatory board; and as soon it starts talking about limiting the power of the Ontario Labour Relations Board or the Courts, it can be applied to anyone who works. This isn’t about “Putting Students First,” it’s about putting the government first. Those “innocent children” you’re talking about are the employees of the future. I, a teacher, would be remiss if I didn’t stand up for them, even it means being unpopular in my own community for my choices.

So here I’ll agree with the editor: don’t get caught up in “The McGuinty Trap,” but by that I mean by believing all the press releases that come from the government. And by all means, don’t feel you need to believe me, read it yourself! I’ve been teaching about democracy in my Grade 7/8 class for the last 10 years. I’ll tell you what I tell my students, “The most dangerous voter to a politician is one who is educated and aware of the issues.” Educate yourself. Read the Bill. And be afraid. Be very afraid.

Sincerely,

Heather Jefkins, OCT

Gore Bay

EDITOR’S RESPONSE: The editorial referenced in Heather Jefkins’ letter was a cautionary note to teachers that referenced common perceptions about teachers’ income levels and perks held by many of those unfamiliar with the educational field. The point of the editorial, which is not addressed in Ms. Jefkins’ response, was that teachers should refrain from actions that will impact students, as those actions would most likely have a negative impact on public opinion towards teachers. Therein lay the referenced ‘trap.’

The editorial in question can be found here.


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