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Teachers, unions rally in Owen Sound

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The number of teachers issued layoff notices by the Bluewater District School Board has been cut by about half, but teachers and their unions are still expressing their displeasure with the plans of Doug Ford’s Conservative government.

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On Friday, well over 100 people – the majority of them teachers — attended another professional development day lunch-hour rally outside Bruce Grey-Owen Sound MPP and Minister of Government and Consumer Services Bill Walker’s constituency office on 1st. Avenue West in Owen Sound. A similar scene played out on April 12 during their last professional development day, with other rallies held at other times in the region and throughout the province.

At the time of the last professional development day rally in April, the Bluewater board was projecting a board-wide secondary staff reduction of 79.5 full time equivalent positions, with 92 potential layoff notices that had gone out. But this week, the board put out new figures that has seen that number drop to 37.5 FTE, expecting to impact about half the original number of staff, after the board received Attrition Allocation Funding from the Ministry of Education.

Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation Bluewater bargaining unit president Betty-Jo Raddin said just prior to the start of Friday’s rally that the numbers are still concerning to them.

“This is only the beginning. The previous numbers from the board, the 79.5, that is where we will be in four years time if nothing changes,” Raddin said. “And that is just the changes the government is making to class sizes. That doesn’t include the changes the government is going to make with e-learning.

“If e-learning goes to a public consortium and it is not offered by the Bluewater school board, we predict we will lose another 20 full-time staff.”

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The protests have been held by teachers, support staff and their unions upset about class sizes, lost teaching jobs and the impact they say the government’s cuts and changes to the education system will have on students in the classroom.

The government’s changes will see the average size of high school classes increase to 28 students, up from 22, and require high school students to earn one e-learning credit a year starting in 2020-21. Class sizes for grades 4 to 8 will also increase from 24 to 25 pupils. Teachers have also been critical of cuts to autism supports, that they say will lead to thousands of autistic kids to flood back into the public school system, which teachers are ill-equipped to deal with.

Raddin said next school year there are going to be 33 fewer teachers in the Bluewater board’s nine secondary schools than they currently have now. There are five schools in Bluewater currently with less than 33 teachers, Raddin added.

Enrolment is expected to drop in Bluewater by 140 students next school year, while the 33 teachers represents 198 fewer student sections or courses, she explained.

“198 sections for 140 students means we are losing more than one section for every student that we are losing,” said Raddin. “There is an inconsistency in this government’s actions and its words. On the one hand they are saying they are open for business, and on the other hand they are cutting funding to secondary schools, and schools in general.”

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Bluewater board communications officer Jamie Pettit said via e-mail on Friday that the schools are in the process of timetabling for next year and there continues to a fluctuation in numbers, but the board has managed to reduce the number of teachers affected by layoff to about half.

“A number of factors, such as student requests for courses and staffing, will determine how programs are delivered,” Pettit wrote. “We will have a better sense of the overall impact once timetabling has been completed next month.”

Pettit added that other than the class size changes for secondary, all other numbers are typical of the board’s annual process.

The board has also distributed layoff notices to four early childhood educators and 62 educational assistants, and they are now in the recall process.

As part of the Bluewater board’s budget process, staff are recommending the redistribution of some special education funds for next year, which will allow the board to recall approximately 20 EAs.

“Those remaining on lay-off will be recalled as jobs become available,” Pettit wrote. “This is part of the regular annual process for all employee groups.”

In elementary, the board is also reviewing or waiting for clarification on when it can recall some system teacher positions, which will also permit some additional recall of staff on lay-off, Pettit added.

In the meantime, Raddin said the teachers feel their rallies are making a difference and their voices are being heard.

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“We are getting lots of public support and I think people are starting to realize the importance and the link between education and the economy,” Raddin said.

Attending Friday’s rally was Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. Hammond addressed those in the crowd, many of them holding signs and flags, and thanked them for coming out.

Hammond said they are letting Walker and the government know that they are not going away and they are going to do what they have to to stand up for publicly-funded education and other services.

Hammond said they are also informing the public of the impact of the government’s decisions, and the feeling is that they have the support of the public.

“I think on the issues that we are talking about, it has been very clear that the public supports the positions that all of the stakeholders have taken because they see the negative effects it will have on students and publicly-funded education, not to mention the loss of jobs,” Hammond said.

Both Raddin and Hammond said the government has not had any ongoing and meaningful talks with any of the stakeholders involved.

Going forward there are plans for more rallies.

Hammond said next Thursday there is a walk-in planned in some areas of the province, where parents, teachers and school board staff are going to gather and walk into schools – rather than walk out — to make a statement.

Attempts to reach Walker were unsuccessful.

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