By T.J. Goertz
Extracurricular activities, collective bargaining and First Nations, Métis and Inuit education were on the agenda as Ontario Minister of Education Liz Sandals spoke at the Ontario Public School Boards' Association Board of Directors meeting on February 22, 2013.
Minister Sandals joined the board meeting for an informal dialogue less than two weeks after being sworn in on February 11. She is a former president of the association (1998-2002) and was re-elected to Guelph's local public school board four times. While leading OPSBA, she engaged wholeheartedly with school boards and communities to support programs and initiatives that empower students for the 21st century. The solutions were always centred on the needs of children and youth.
OPSBA President Michael Barrett was pleased to welcome the new minister to the meeting. "We are absolutely honoured that you have put OPSBA on your agenda this evening," Barrett said, eliciting a round of applause. "Premier Kathleen Wynne has chosen a respected and knowledgeable minister who will make it a priority to re-establish successful labour relations in our system."
The breaking news of the evening was that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation had just announced that it would suspend political action related to extracurricular activities, paving the way for teachers to make individual decisions on volunteering their time outside of the classroom. In particular, the Minister recognized school curriculum leaders and teachers who voluntarily stay every night after class and who "are crucial to the operation of an effective school."
OPSBA's often-voiced emphasis on the need for a fair and legislated collective bargaining process was discussed, as was Ontario Regulation 274/12, Hiring Practices. Twenty-seven OPSBA member boards have written to the Ministry of Education outlining their concerns about the implications of the regulation. The Minister recognized there were some areas of concern and there is a need for a fair, transparent process that ensures the highest-quality teachers are hired.
Sandals also recognized the shared responsibility of all education partners to provide a successful education experience for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students in publicly funded schools in Ontario. She noted that narrowing the achievement gap for Aboriginal students is a significant goal of the Liberal government. This came on the heels of Premier Kathleen Wynne's Speech from the Throne, delivered earlier that week, which stated, "Your government believes that First Nation, Métis and Inuit children must share in every opportunity, too. That we must close the gap with their peers so that they can live and learn and play as they like."
Minister Sandals raised the challenges of delivering quality programming to all students, especially when many schools have low enrolment. "Declining enrolment will continue to be one of the issues that we're all going to have to grapple with, whatever our geography. That's going to be an ongoing challenge for all of us," she said.
Commenting on Sandals's visit to the meeting, Barrett said, "Educational policy development, finance and instruction are very complex, and each education partner brings unique strengths and insights to the table. We remain committed to developing a true partnership with Minister Sandals - a partnership that is marked by cooperation, collaboration and respect."
T.J. Goertz is the Web communications and policy officer for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.