Education

Days of discontent

Public school students face a new season of turmoil

John Schofield September 20 1999
Education

Days of discontent

Public school students face a new season of turmoil

John Schofield September 20 1999

Days of discontent

Education

Public school students face a new season of turmoil

John Schofield

It was the day the music died at Lindsay Place High—and Scott Parker was feeling less than harmonious. As the 15-year-old tuba player returned to his suburban Montreal school late last month, he and his classmates found themselves in the middle of a provincewide work-to-rule campaign by teachers. Gone were the band practices, football games and a host of other extracurricular activities. Last week, Parkers biggest concern was the fate of the band’s planned trip to Florida next spring: all summer long, he and his trombone-playing twin, Ross, raised money so they could take part in a competition at Disney World in April. Not surprisingly, the job action has most students and parents in an uproar. “It’s an emotional issue,” says Joan Parker, the boys’ mother. “We support our teachers, but the kids are suffering, and the government doesn’t seem to know or care.”

As the new school year begins, a fresh season of turmoil is brewing throughout Canada’s public schools. The Quebec dispute— part of a larger battle between the provincial government and public sector workers—is potentially the most explosive, with the possibility of 80,000 teachers striking later this fall. But smaller skirmishes are breaking out across the country. In British Columbia, negotiators for 25 school boards are locking horns with the province’s 24,000 educational support workers. Alberta is still abuzz over a decision last month by the province’s minister of learning, Lyle Oberg, to dismiss all seven trustees of the Calgary board of education, saying the group was “dysfunctional.” Separate school teachers in Calgary have slapped their own workto-rule ban on extracurricular activities. And in Ontario, where students face their first strike-free autumn in two years, teachers are contending with a massive overhaul of the provinces secondary school curriculum, which remained incomplete as students began classes. “Teachers are going back with mixed emotions,” says Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. “They’re unsure of what the future holds.”

While the details differ, most of the quarrels come down to two critical issues: how money is spent and how education is to be controlled. In their relentless drive to cut costs, many governments have unleashed an all-out bid to seize greater power over schools.

In many areas, school boards have lost the right to collect property taxes or conduct contract negotiations. And as the struggle rages, it is leaving behind a messy trail of strikes, angry school boards and unhappy parents.

Nothing embodies the current malaise more than the Quebec fight. After 10 years without a raise, teachers want an 11-per-cent increase over three years, a far cry from the government’s offer of five per cent for all public-sector workers. The average salary for teachers now stands at $44,000 a year, well below the national average of $50,000.

Union negotiators also want protection from proposals that would give principals sweeping new powers to determine a teacher’s workload. The government maintains that teachers effectively work part time because of their long holidays. The unions argue that, with extracurricular activities and after-school marking thrown in, they deserve the same pay as full-time civil servants with similar qualifications. If the province refuses to budge, the teachers may refuse to write interim reports. A general strike could follow as early as November. “Teachers are in a fighting mood,” says Pierre Weber, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers. “They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

The same frustration is fuelling labour tensions in other provinces. The Calgary separate school board’s 2,500 teachers cancelled extracurricular activities this month to press demands for guaranteed preparation time. Last week, board officials won the right to lock out the teachers with 72 hours notice. Workload is also an issue in Manitoba, where compulsory binding arbitration has ensured labour peace since 1957. Teachers are on a collision course with the government over a new law that takes away their right to arbitrate issues such as class size and teachers’ schedules. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is capitalizing on the current provincial election campaign to air its grievances, and NDP Leader Gary Doer has vowed to strike down the law if elected.

In other regions, teachers are still reeling from recent reforms. The elimination of Newfoundlands denominational school system delayed the opening of at least 12 schools this month in the St. John’s area, as the Avalon East school board completed the conversion of high schools to middle schools. Ontario teachers are still waiting for 60 per cent of the new curriculum for students in Grades 9 and 10, and are concerned about a controversial proposal for teacher testing, which the government has yet to fully explain. And in British Columbia, the unrest extends to other workers, as well: a challenge to the traditional bargaining practice could spark strikes this fall by school support staff, including secretaries, custodians and teachers’ aides.

As the animosity escalates, governments seem increasingly willing to flex their muscles. Witness Alberta’s Oberg, who dismissed the Calgary school board’s seven trustees late last month. Ele criticized the board’s internal bickering, especially following the publication of several notes that two trustees allegedly exchanged during the course of several meetings. One missive referred to two opposing trustees as “those bitches.” Last month, Oberg turned interim control over to George Cornish, the city’s former chief commissioner, and a school board byelection is slated for November. “It was 100-per-cent political,” says former trustee Jennifer Pollock, “and 100-percent the wrong reason to remove a board.” Oberg disagrees: “Their hatred of each other was making it impossible for them to run as a cohesive unit.”

As parents and students weather the re-entry to yet another school year, patience is at a breaking point. “Everybody is feeling that school this year won’t nearly be as good as it has been in the past,” says Scott Parker. “It’s kind of disorienting—people aren’t too sure when it’s going to end.” By all indications, not any time soon.