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Bill 115 protests being held at schools across the county

Cheryl Browne

By Cheryl Browne, Barrie Examiner

Pupils at Andrew Hunter Elementary School in Barrie staged a walkout Tuesday morning protesting what they feel is unfair practices between the provincial government and the effects Bill 115 is having on their extra-curricular activities. (Tuesday was pyjama day at Andrew Hunter).

Pupils at Andrew Hunter Elementary School in Barrie staged a walkout Tuesday morning protesting what they feel is unfair practices between the provincial government and the effects Bill 115 is having on their extra-curricular activities. (Tuesday was pyjama day at Andrew Hunter). J.T. MCVEIGH/QMI AGENCY/BARRIE EXAMINER

Thirteen-year-old Connor James was one of two dozen students who walked out when the weather was still mild.

Two hours later, the students remaining in the teeming rain were struggling to erect a tarp over their heads in an effort to escape the torrential downpour.

“We don’t know who’s right or wrong, (Premier Dalton) McGuinty or the teachers, but it’s starting to affect our education,” said the dripping-wet Andrew Hunter Elementary School student.

Across the county, hundreds of students walked out of class to protest the effect Bill 115 is having on their school year.

Both elementary and high school students took to the lawns, parking lots or playing fields of their school with signs, or simply singing slogans to the honking vehicles that passed shortly after 9:30 a.m., Tuesday.

Students from Andrew Hunter, Cookstown Central, Angus Morrison and Minesing elementary schools, as well as dozens of high school students at Barrie Central Collegiate, staged protests in the rain.

“We’re here because the government is being unfair to our teachers,” said Alexa Voltolina, 13, from Angus Morrison, where she estimated 40 students had left the classroom.

“We’re protesting to get our sports and extracurricular programs back,” she said.

In Minesing, the girls’ senior basketball team recently missed out on a tournament due to the teacher’s work-to-rule stance.

In Cookstown, the volleyball playoffs were cancelled.

Elementary teachers’ collective agreements expired Aug. 31.

The Simcoe County District School Board has negotiated with the local Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) union since June.

However, the board isn’t only dealing with elementary permanent teachers, but also with occasional teachers, and designated early childhood workers as well.

Custodial and maintenance staff with CUPE and support staff, including education assistants and secretarial staff with OPSEU may offer their support during a strike and refuse to cross the picket line.

The Simcoe County board is in a legal strike position as of Monday.

There are still two dates scheduled for negotiations between the school board and the teachers’ union, said Janet Bigham of the Simcoe County Elementary Teachers’ Federation.

“We’re planning on attending those negotiations,” Bigham said.

The Liberal government shut down the Ontario legislature earlier this fall, so the current Bill 115 can’t be rescinded.

Education Minister Laurel Broten is urging local school boards and teachers’ unions to submit their negotiated contracts before the end of the year, or she’ll force them back to work when the bill kicks in Dec. 31.

All elementary school teachers’ across the province will be in a strike position as of Monday, Dec. 10.

The ETFO has said it will give 72 hours notice of any planned strikes.

Principals across Simcoe were between a rock and a hard place, Tuesday.

Responsible for students while on school property, elementary school-aged students leaving the class and picketing in front of schools put some of them in a tough position.

At several of the walkout schools, students were told they would face suspension if they left the school.

“We were told we’d be suspended if we left,” said Hannah Sweet, 13.

The Grade 8 student at Minesing said of the 28 students who initially walked out, many returned to the school and only nine remained outside by midday.

“I have good relationships with my teachers. I’ve been here 10 years now, and now with no sports, our end-of-year Ottawa trip probably cancelled, I just think it’s wrong. Today, I think our teachers basically agreed with us and said, go out and do what we believe in,” Sweet said.

A parent whose son attends Cookstown elementary said she supports the students.

“They’re not doing any harm and they’re standing up for what we believe in,” said Mary Escott. “This week was supposed to be their (volleyball) tournament and it was cancelled, so they’re frustrated.”

Escott said all the Grade 8 students left the building, but only 16 stayed outside in the field at the back of the school.

Andrew Hunter principal Keith Crozier said principals had been given a little notice about Tuesday’s planned walkout.

Of the students walk out, he said, “it is what it is. They just got up and left. That’s their democratic right.”

School board spokeswoman Debbie Clarke said there were rumours about the potential of student protests this week.

“Principals are communicating to students that they respect their democratic right to make their voices heard and that there are more appropriate times outside of classroom hours to express this opinion, such as before school, at lunch, or after school,” Clarke wrote in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, the union representing the county’s public secondary school teachers has determined it doesn’t have a tentative agreement to present to its members to ratify.

During the pre-approval process, ‘language’ was added to the tentative agreement that was not signed by the bargaining team.

This occurred as a result of Bill 115, and restrictions imposed through a process lacking transparency that interfered with local bargaining as per the Ontario Labour Relations Act.

“At this time, we do not believe it is in the best interest of the membership to continue with the bargaining and ratification process,” said Ian Tudor, District 17, Simcoe teacher bargaining unit president, adding as of Monday, Dec. 10, members will return to job sanctions as outlined by provincial OSSTF.

Job sanctions will remain the same as District 17, Simcoe members completed earlier this year, and will now also include the withdrawal from voluntary and extra-curricular activities, as outlined by provincial OSSTF.

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