TORONTO — The union representing Ontario's high school teachers described a proffered olive branch as a "poison pill" on Thursday, saying the government only told half the story when it offered to partially walk back a proposed increase to class sizes.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation confirmed that the Progressive Conservative government had offered to lower the average funded class size from 28 to 25 as part of its labour negotiations with the union.
But Harvey Bischof said Education Minister Stephen Lecce failed to mention another clause contained in the offer which would see the government remove all reference to class size limits, essentially allowing the province to see the number of students per class climb indefinitely.
"The 25 provides funding to hire a certain number of teachers," Bischof explained at a news conference. "It provides no safeguard for the highest number that any class could go to."
Bischof said he sees "no upside" to the governments latest offer, which Lecce announced publicly on Thursday afternoon.
The move marked yet another reversal for the government of Premier Doug Ford, which has had to soften or reverse policy decisions on a wide variety of fronts since taking power last June.
But Thursday's announcement does not return maximum class sizes to 22 — the level in place before the Tories launched sweeping education reforms in March.
Lecce described the offer to set average class sizes at 25 as a gesture of good faith towards the OSSTF, one he said the union has spurned by pursuing measures that could put members in a legal strike position.
"The government again has made a significant enhancement, yet on the day we made that offering, the union has decided to escalate at a time that parents want us all to work together to keep kids in class," Lecce said.
Bischof said that while members are currently voting on the possibility of strike action, no labour disruptions are imminent. The union's decision on a potential strike is expected after Nov. 15.
Bischof also downplayed the government's concession, saying that implementing a higher average funding cap would still result in massive job losses among high school teachers.
Earlier this year, the government ordered school boards to start increasing class sizes, moving to an average for high school from 22 to 28 students over four years. Class sizes for grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom, from 23 to 24.
Ontario's Financial Accountability Officer has said the move would result in 10,000 fewer teachers in the public school system over the next five years. Bischof said that figure would shrink to 5,000 if the government adopts the lower average cap, but said that number would also compromise the educational experience.
A similar message came from the Ontario Public School Boards Association, an organization that takes part in all labour talks with the province and it's various education unions.
The association issued a statement saying that while Lecce "demonstrated flexibility" by reducing the funding cap, the lowered threshold is still too high to guarantee a high-quality experience for students.
"As the funded average class size increases, a school's ability to continue to offer courses with smaller class sizes will be diminished," the statement read. "Schools will either have to cancel courses or, in order to retain them, combine courses together into larger classes, resulting in less suitable support for students."
The issue of class sizes is one of several creating tension as the government and the union work towards striking a new labour deal.
Contracts with all of the province's education workers expired at the end of August, and the government has been embroiled in testy negotiations with all of the province's education unions since the school year began.
It narrowly averted a strike with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing 55,000 workers such as custodial staff and teaching assistants.
Both the OSSTF and its counterpart representing elementary school teachers have all sought conciliation as labour talks continue, and the School Board Association said it would continue to raise class sizes at the bargaining table.
The official opposition were quick to dismiss the government announcement, with New Democrat education critic Marit Stiles accusing the government of using students as bargaining chips.
"He's making Ontarians choose between bad and worse," she said of Lecce. "That is really no choice at all."
This report by the Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2019
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press