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Bill to impose contract on teachers gets rough ride

High school teacher Dan MacDonald was one of 67 presenters to the law amendments committee over the past two days. About 400 others asked to have their voices heard but were denied the opportunity.
Anger over Bill 75 continued Thursday, as did a protest at Province House by teachers and their supporters. (TED PRITCHARD / Local Xpress / File)

Bill 75 will impose a contract on the province's 9,300 public school teachers when it passes through the legislature sometime early next week.

On Thursday, it was clear that the bill is already a weighty imposition for many.

"Education in Nova Scotia is broken," Dan MacDonald, a math and phys ed teacher at Cole Harbour District High School, told the law amendments committee Thursday afternoon.

"Instead of being able to carry on and teach and inspire the youth of our communities, which I love to do, I am trying to dignify my profession to politicians who are lost in some sort of a twilight zone. I engage daily with Grade 12s heading to university. They know the system failed them and they are terrified."

A teacher for nine years, MacDonald said Nova Scotia high school graduates have an abysmal success rate in their first year at Atlantic Canadian universities.

"I've heard all kinds of excuses: Teachers are too soft, it's the millennial generation, video games are ruining the youth. No, that's not it. The Department of Education is dumbing down the curriculum to make everyone feel good. We are no longer teaching resiliency. We are telling everyone they are the best all the time. For what, to avoid conflict and make statistics look better. "

MacDonald said teachers implement directives issued by government.

"Our hands are tied."

MacDonald was one of 67 presenters to the law amendments committee over the past two days. About 400 others asked to have their voices heard but were denied the opportunity despite several motions by Lenore Zann, the NDP member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River and a member of the committee, to have the presentation time extended to accommodate all who wanted to speak.

Joanne Treen, a  Grade Primary teacher at Sycamore Lane Elementary School in Lower Sackville and the mother of two school-age children, was one of the aspiring presenters who had her voice muted by the Liberal majority on the committee that defeated Zann's motions.

Treen said she contacted the legislature several times over a three-day period to get her name on the list but faced a frustrating array of busy phone lines and voicemail full messages. She was eventually told she would be contacted with an appointment time but that did not happen.

Had she been allowed to make her presentation, Treen would have taken the premier to task for his decision to say that the time for negotiations had ended after the Nova Scotia Teachers Union members rejected three tentative agreements.

"You either support the process or you don’t," Treen said. "In 2013, shortly before he was elected premier, the Honourable Stephen McNeil said, 'We support the collective bargaining process and the right to strike and will continue to do so.'  It has become abundantly clear that he no longer feels this way."

The premier thinks that a majority gives him the right to violate the collective bargaining rights of teachers, Treen said. Her assertion was repeated time and again during a boisterous rally in support of collective bargaining that attracted about 150 members of different unions to Granville Street, behind Province House, on Thursday evening .

Treen said the contract to be imposed does not come close "to sufficiently addressing" teachers' concerns about classroom conditions.

She said she would have told the committee that concrete classroom caps are required, not flexible caps that do not have to be respected, and that Education Minister Karen Casey's statement about a no-fail policy being no more than a myth is a misrepresentation of the facts. Treen said adaptations recommended to help students reach provincial outcomes and individual program plans constitute the real no-fail policy.

The Education Department said in a release Thursday that school superintendents have been directed to ensure that school boards do not institute a retention or no-fail policy.

Treen would have also told the committee that she disagrees with Casey's assertion that the work-to-rule directives launched by the NSTU on Dec. 5 have been disruptive to students in the classroom. Treen said teachers focused on planning, preparing and delivering lessons while withdrawing extras like lunchtime supervision, extra help or extracurricular activities, clubs, coaching and supervising concerts.

"None of these extras are required in the Teachers’ Provincial Agreement. They were, and will remain optional even when work-to-rule ends. None of these were disruptions in our classrooms, or hurt kids."

The law amendments committee meeting wrapped up at 8 p.m. Thursday. MLAs were to return to the House later in the evening and the House was to sit again at 12:01 a.m. Friday as the bill is pushed toward third reading.

All this was to happen as the NSTU planned a one-day strike for Friday, which has forced the boards to close all of the province's public schools.

"The fact is that the union is going on strike tomorrow," said Michel Samson, the Liberal House leader, in explaining the rush to get the bill pushed through.

"I don't think any Nova Scotian is surprised by the fact that when there is going to be a strike by public-sector workers that government is going to react. Not only are they going on strike tomorrow but they have reserved the right to go on strike next week as well. This is about putting kids in the classroom, allowing teachers to do what they do best and removing the strike action."

The reserved right to strike next week comment took NSTU president Liette Doucet by surprise.

"We have never said that, we have not indicated that, we haven't discussed anything except our one-day strike," Doucet said. "As of right now, we are expecting this bill to be passed at least by Tuesday and at that point, we are no longer in a legal strike position. It's always been an option that we could have a full-blown strike but it is not something that we have planned."

In its statement Thursday, the Education Department confirmed its commitment to fund classroom improvements, to investigate potential changes to PowerSchool, a student information system, and to take steps to address classroom concerns.

The bill establishes the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, to be composed of classroom teachers from across the province, from elementary, junior and senior high schools. It invests $20 million over two years to address issues in the classroom. Within 14 days of the bill being passed, the council will be appointed.

Speaking at law amendments, parent Bill Swan, who was accompanied by his elementary school daughter, said that money directed to committees is a waste and it should be spent directly in the classroom.

Environment Minister Margaret Miller asked Swan why he thought committee money wouldn't be a help in the classroom.

"Parents don't believe you," he said.

Rana Zaman told the law amendments committee that she came to Canada in 1971, emigrating from Pakistan. She praised teachers for helping her as a child and for alerting her years later that her teenage daughter was going through depression and needed help.

"Her teacher noticed something was wrong."

Sent on a new path by health-care professionals because of the teacher's intervention, her daughter, now 22, is a top student at Saint Mary's University, Zaman said.

"As an immigrant and the newcomers that are here, we see you as our role models, as our leaders, as our protectors," Zaman said to the MLAs. "What has happened to you all? What happens when you get elected and you sit on those seats? The human beings that you are, the people that we vote in, that we love and that we trust, that we believe in, turn into some kind of automatic machines."

She said children are in the hands of our teachers, "teachers who possibly saved the life of my child and could do that for others."

"What you are doing now is not representing what Canada believes in. On the one hand, you allow us to speak but on the other hand you are imposing something on a group of people who are saying 'this is not right,' and there are so many more behind them saying also, 'this is not right.' Why is it you are not listening? What could you possibly gain from this?"                                                                      


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