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Teachers unions in three provinces rally behind STF over class size, complexity

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The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation joined forces with educators in other provinces Tuesday to underscore the importance of addressing class size and complexity in contractual language.

With students across the province out of class for the week of February break, STF president Samantha Becotte was joined by leaders of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association — jurisdictions that have successfully lobbied governments to include similar provisions in their agreements.

"It must be in the collective negotiations process," Becotte said. "Not only do teachers have a right to negotiate around their working conditions, and these working conditions are directly tied to our student's learning conditions and classroom complexity."

The teachers' union and the province haven't been at the bargaining table since Feb. 12 and 13 when the government says the union walked away before an offer with a memorandum of understanding outside of the collective agreement for $53.1 million in annual funding could be presented.

Becotte says that offer doesn’t hold water because anything outside of collective bargaining wouldn't be enforceable.

"Including a clause in the provincial collective agreement would ensure government and school boards can be held accountable for their commitments," Becotte said. "There is absolutely no reason that I can see that it can't be part of a bargaining process."

Karen Brown, president of the Ontario elementary teachers’ union, said what's happening in classrooms now was practically unheard of 10 years ago.

Brown says that's why the union revised its code of conduct to include violence and disruptive behaviors in its agreement with the province for the first time in the Ontario’s history when the deal was signed in December 2023.

"Positive changes for students, teachers and schools can happen at the bargaining table when the parties work together to affect positive change," Brown said.

The BCTF ended a 14-year dispute with its provincial government when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that class size and composition was a negotiable item.

However, BCTF President Clint Johnston noted the current agreement in place in B.C. was negotiated when school districts were local, so having that language in a provincial agreement is important so there aren't differences from region to region.

"Once that language is in there, it really is about the employer’s commitment to fulfilling that properly."

Johnston said B.C. has seen "mixed success" in addressing class size and complexity. He said getting that language into a collective agreement is just the start. Without proper resources and implementation the contractual language doesn't amount to much.

"When it's done properly it's very successful," he said.

Connie Keating, the current vice president for the Canadian Teachers Federation and past president for the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic certain class sizes were capped at 15 students per classroom. In her nearly 30 years of teaching she never imagined such great working conditions and relationship building with students.

"This will go down for me as a period in my teaching career where I experienced the most success. Teacher workload and management is key when we have class size caps," she said. "Larger class size significantly increase the workload and the stress level of teachers."

The union leaders from across the country say the public spat between the province and its teachers looks familiar, and they stand behind Saskatchewan teachers to work more than just salary increases into the contract.

"The real kind of cognitive dissonance — the the oddity of hearing a government talk about its commitment to children and students and education while also taking such an aggressive position," Johnston said. "To make statements like 'we cannot bargain something’ in the public is very detrimental to any kind of bargaining process."

No matter the political pressure Becotte and her bargaining committee faces, Brown said these issues can be bargained.

"The government has to re-evaluate their political will. They do have the funding, they have the ability to do it, and now it's about a political will, and are they committed to the system?"

CTV News reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment and is waiting for a response.

No new rounds of talks between the province and teachers are scheduled. Last week, the STF warned of escalating job action once the February break is done.

Becotte said that escalation would likely mean more disruption to classroom learning, but any and all options are being considered.  

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