STF ‘really crossed the line’ with upcoming withdrawal of services says Prince Albert MLA

Teachers and supporters walk around the Saskatchewan Legislative Building grounds during their two-day job action on March 20, 2024 in Regina. -- Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post

Prince Albert’s two MLAs blasted the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) for their decision to withdraw extracurricular services on Thursday and Friday, which led to the Saskatchewan High School Athletics Association (SHSAA) cancelling one of Saskatchewan’s biggest high school sports events.

The SHSAA will host a one-day version of the annual Hoopla high school basketball tournament due to the withdrawal of services. The two-day tournament was scheduled to start Friday, but SHSAA officials reduced it to a one-day event because of the withdrawal.

Prince Albert Carlton MLA Joe Hargrave and Prince Albert Northcote MLA Alana Ross were both unhappy with the news.

“We have some really wonderful teachers,” Ross said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “They do a fantastic job with our kids all the time. It is the STF who is making these calls, and personally I feel they really crossed the line with Hoopla. They talk about (how) they’re negotiating for the kids. From my perspective, that is punishing the children and involving them in a situation they shouldn’t be involved in.”

The SHSAA originally gave both parties a 3 p.m. Wednesday deadline before making a decision on whether to cancel the tournament. When that passed, the organization announced that each qualifying team would end the season by playing one exhibition game on Saturday, instead of the regular knockout tournament.

The STF and provincial government have not been at the bargaining table since Feb. 13. That meeting ended with barely any negotiations, and both parties released statements accusing the other of walking away from the bargaining table.

On Wednesday, Hargrave pointed to the $28.5 million provided for portable classrooms in the provincial budget and a recently signed multi-year funding agreement with the Saskatchewan School Boards Association as examples of the province’s commitment to addressing classroom complexity—a key STF concern. He said that should be enough to get the STF back negotiating.

“We’ve made lots of efforts, but they haven’t made any effort at all, and now they shut down Hoopla,” Hargrave said. “That’s not the government, and that’s not our bargaining team. That is strictly the teachers’ union that has shut down Hoopla for all these kids, all their extracurricular activities, (and) that’s just not acceptable as far as I’m concerned.”

“The table is the place to make agreements, and until the STF is willing to come back unconditionally to the table to sit down and talk, it’s going to be difficult to move forward,” Ross added. “I know a lot of teachers who really want to come back to the classroom, the kids want to come back to the classroom, and they’re the ones who are being impacted.”

STF President Samantha Becotte said the government bargaining committee has had plenty of opportunities to address the issue, but refuses to meet teachers halfway. Becotte released a statement calling on the province to either agree to binding arbitration on the issue of classroom complexity, or give the bargaining committee a new mandate to negotiate.

“Throughout this process we have provided government with multiple off-ramps to end sanctions and ensure that activities and events such as Hoopla, the Regina Optimist Band Festival, the Skills Canada Saskatchewan Provincial Competition, and many, many more could take place as originally planned,” reads the statement. “We are deeply disappointed that government simply refuses to meet teachers halfway.”

The Friday withdrawal of extracurricular services is the last day of three straight days of job action. Things began on Wednesday with a province-wide strike that had thousands of teachers picketing outside the provincial legislature during the budget presentation.

In Prince Albert, teachers protested in the Cornerstone area, which includes Alana Ross’ constituency office, a location they’ve picketed before.

Prince Albert and Area Teachers’ Association (PAATA) president Jean-Marc Belliveau said teachers want to have classroom complexity dealt with in this agreement, but the province isn’t negotiating seriously.

“We’ve given the government quite a few opportunities to come back to the table, and they have not accepted the offer,” Belliveau said in an interview following Wednesday’s protest.

“There are plenty of options to make all job actions go away.”

Belliveau said there is some frustration, but teachers would not be dissuaded from addressing classroom complexity. When asked when the string of job actions would progress into a full-blown strike, Belliveau said it would depend on how the government bargaining committee acts.

“Usually in bargaining, it’s to get better working conditions, but in this case, better working conditions equal better learning conditions,” he said. “We’re doing this for the students. We are fighting to have support so that all the students in the classroom have all that they need to be able to learn properly.”

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer announced $3.3 billion in education funding during Wednesday’s budget presentation, an 8.1 per cent increase over the year before. That includes $2.2 billion in school operating funding, along with $356.6 million in classroom supports, and another $216 million in school infrastructure funding.