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Sask. teachers' union, province at odds on key issues as contract talks languish

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Nearly two months after contract talks broke down, the union representing Saskatchewan's teachers and the province's bargaining committee are set to meet with a conciliation board to find a way forward.

However, the two sides appear at odds when it comes to some key issues at play in the negotiations.

The meetings come after the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation (STF) declared an impasse in October and held an authorization vote for job actions up to and including a strike.

According to the union, 90 per cent of its members took part in the vote where 95 per cent okayed potentional job action.

"We have been willing to return to the table at any point," STF president Samantha Becotte said Monday morning during a virtual news conference.

She said the last time the two sides sat down was on Oct. 13.

"If the government were to be willing to start negotiating on the other proposals that we have presented — those big topics such as classroom complexity, violence in the classroom supports for substitute teachers, meaningful actions that support Truth and Reconciliation," Becotte said.

The items outlined by Becotte in her comments and the issue of class sizes have become sticking points in the negotiations.

The Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee, which includes government and Saskatchewan School Board Association representatives has argued requests around class size and composition are outside the scope of the negotiations and are decisions best left to school divisions.

In October, Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill said the government has "certainly heard that loud and clear from the 27 school divisions and so that’s not something that we’re looking for in a bargaining agreement."

“We believe that school divisions are in the best position to manage class size and composition in their respective communities all around the province,” he said.

In a response to a CTV News inquiry on Monday, the education ministry showed no signs of changing course.

"The Government of Saskatchewan will not bargain away the ability of locally elected school boards to continue to make these decisions," a ministry statement said, while again highlighting the government's proposed offer of a seven per cent salary bump over three years.

Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Becotte said the STF's push to expand the discussion beyond compensation isn't "coming out of nowhere."

"There are many provincial teacher organizations that have negotiated conditions on classroom size or classroom complexity. So this isn't a new topic," Becotte said.

"It is also something that we brought forward over our last two rounds," she said.

According to Becotte, there are three days of meetings scheduled with a Ministry of Labour conciliation board this week, and two days next week.

In Saskatchewan, a conciliation board can be struck when either side formally declares an impasse during labour negotiations.

On its website, the Ministry of Labour describes a conciliator as a neutral third party meant to help "resolve collective bargaining disputes by diffusing tensions, improving communications, interpreting issues, providing technical assistance, exploring potential solutions and bringing about a negotiated settlement."

According to STF, more than 500 calls were placed to MLA constituency offices on Dec. 1 as part of a campaign in support of teachers.

Becotte said the union remains hopeful it "can reach an agreement without action, but teachers are ready to take action when it's necessary."

The STF's most recent contract expired at the end of August.

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