Province says graduations will happen; STF eyes path to bargaining table

Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post Minister of Education Jeremy Cockrill speaks inside the radio room in a joint press conference with SSBA President Jamie Smith-Windsor on Thursday, March 28, 2024 in Regina. PHOTO BY KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post.

‘Government is going to be working with school divisions to make sure that those activities happen as normal,’ said Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill

Alex Salloum, Regina Leader-Post

Saskatchewan’s education minister says graduations will take place this year, regardless of potential job sanctions.

But what that looks like is something of a mystery, after education minister Jeremy Cockrill was unable to provide many details of the government’s contingency plans during a news conference with the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) on Thursday.

“Government is going to be working with school divisions to make sure that those activities happen as normal,” he said, adding he knows teachers and principals work hard to organize graduations and teachers want to be there.

When asked for specifics, Cockrill said renting halls would be considered but “discussions are fairly preliminary.”

Keeping in theme, a recently touted accountability framework for education funding hinted at by the government last week also remains shrouded in mystery.

The government has presented the framework as a compromise it hopes will get the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) back to the bargaining table amid historic job action.

““The proposal is fairly general right now and, certainly, if we can come to an agreement with the STF on this MOU, that’s when we would start drilling down into details,” Cockrill said, while also reiterating “language around class size and complexity will not be in the provincially bargained agreement.”

The framework is currently in draft form and was delivered to the STF on Monday with an invitation for feedback, he said. STF president Samantha Becotte said there has been back-and-forth between the STF and the government since then, but a sticking point has been whether or not anything in the MOU will be binding.

According to the draft, “dispute resolution mechanisms will be not available to the parties.” And neither Cockrill, or SSBA president Jaimie Smith-Windsor would comment specifically on whether the framework would be binding or what kind of measures would be put in place to ensure accountability.

“If there’s no dispute resolution, then it’s no more than a pinky promise made among two people out on a school playground,” Becotte said Thursday morning, arguing for the framework to be included in the collective bargaining agreement so there would be process to grieve certain issues if they arise.

The STF has long-argued that funding to address issues related to class size and complexity must be included in a new teachers’ contract or some other binding agreement. This would provide assurances that funding from the province supports students and not “hiring additional division administrators or paying down division debt.”

But Smith-Windsor said “preserving management rights” is part of the rationale for why the SSBA does not support the addition of such language in a collective bargaining agreement.

Asked directly if it was a “no” from her on the binding nature of the proposed framework, she pointed to a recently signed multi-year funding deal signed between the province and the SSBA that prescribes a $356.6 million floor for funding in the 2024-25 fiscal year until 2027-28 for additional classroom supports. Cockrill has said this money “will address important issues like classroom size and complexity.”

“They’re accountable and fully transparent and public-facing, as well as they preserve local autonomy and management rates,” Smith-Windsor said of school boards Thursday.

The SSBA would be one of the three signatories if all parties agree to the accountability framework.

Still, Becotte said the STF is “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement is forthcoming. And despite statements made by the minister on Thursday that the STF had moved the goalposts during bargaining, there was a degree of amicability between the two sides.

The MOU will “provide us a path back to the bargaining table,” Becotte said.

“I’d love to say that we’ll be back to the negotiating table as early as next week,” when asked when that might happen.