Very political, polarizing and personal dynamics’: Sask. school boards say teachers’ contracts should not address class size, complexity

Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix Education minister Jeremy Cockrill attends the Saskatchewan School Boards Association meeting at the Sheraton Cavalier. Photo taken in Saskatoon, Sask. on Thursday, April 11, 2024.

Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

As the long, fraught process of negotiating a new contract for Saskatchewan teachers continues, the province’s school boards spoke up about their hopes and fears.

On Friday, the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation (STF) announced a pause of its work-to-rule job action as negotiations with the province are set to resume early next week.

Thursday night, as members of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) gathered in Saskatoon for the beginning of its general assembly, discussions of the strikes, potential contract language and the role of school boards in the negotiations were omnipresent.

“As boards of education, we do not support any language related to class size and complexity in the provincial collective bargaining,” said SSBA president Jaimie Smith-Windsor.

“These issues are best addressed at the local level (and) we are hopeful to see a more typical bargaining process moving forward, with all parties returning to the table to reach an agreement on matters inside the contract and return some much-needed stability to our education system.”

Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill sent a letter this week to school board trustees, asking them to back the government’s bargaining position.

“This debate on whether to include class size and composition into the collective bargaining agreement, in any form, has significant implications for the role of local school boards going forward,” he wrote.

Smith-Windsor said although recent months have been “a very dynamic time for education” in Saskatchewan, full of “very political, polarizing and personal dynamics,” she also sees it as a hopeful sign that so many people are paying attention.

“This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Engagement is critical to ensuring that we have a strong, publicly-funded education system in Saskatchewan.”

To open the assembly, SSBA Executive Director Darren McKee advocated for keeping more decision-making power in the hands of local elected leaders, rather than setting standards in a provincewide contract.

“As an Indigenous person … I don’t want to go back to a time when I was classified and numbered and put into a separate classroom and told that I couldn’t do this, and I couldn’t do that — by people who were not accountable to me,” McKee said. “(School board representatives) are all elected; you are all accountable to me, and my children, and my grandchildren.”

McKee said in other provinces where teachers’ contracts include specific language about class size and complexity, those provisions have resulted in less flexibility to work with teachers, students and families on a case-by-case basis.

“It really handcuffs local decision-makers and families,” McKee said.

“There are examples of contract language in areas of the country — British Columbia is an example — that classify students, and give the control to the classroom teacher to make decisions about where kids go to school. And I’m very sensitive to that. I know that many First Nations kids in this province have experience of being classified; I know many students that are special needs, inclusion students or LGBTQ students are all very sensitive to being classified.

“We’ve heard so many stories of families and students who are separated, who have to go to different schools because they don’t fit into the class complexity formula that’s in the contract.”

Speaking to the SSBA on Thursday, Cockrill touted the recent provincial budget’s investments in school operating funding and planned school construction projects.

“I want to continue to work with you,” Cockrill told board members. “We will not always agree on things — and we don’t — but we need to work together, and we need to remember who we’re serving. At the end of the day, we’re serving the students and families of Saskatchewan: Whether those students are new to our country, whether they’re First Nations, Métis or Inuit students, whether they live in a rural community or an urban community. Those students and those families are who we need to keep in mind.”

To reach the best possible contract as bargaining resumes, McKee said it will take a balance between every involved party.

“In spite of where we’re at with our partners — particularly as we’re in bargaining, and it’s a very emotional issue — and even amongst ourselves, we must show dignity,” McKee said.