THUNDER BAY – Local educators don't have high grades for the Ford government.
A few hundred Thunder Bay teachers and support staff on Wednesday gathered outside the Ontario government buildings on James Street to protest the provincial Progressive Conservative government's education direction, including plans to raise class sizes, lowered per pupil funding for school boards and mandatory e-learning courses.
Lakehead Elementary Teachers of Ontario president Mike Judge questioned the level of respect, or lack thereof, that the government has shown the education system.
"It's embarrassingly poor," Judge said, also criticizing Premier Doug Ford's comments blaming teachers' union bosses for orchestrating a province-wide student organized walk-out last month.
"I'm tired of listening to the news and hearing from the minister of education or the premier himself, and they clearly have no concept of what the issues are or what the education portfolio is all about. It's an unfortunate situation and we know we have our work ahead of us."
A statement from the Canadian Union of Public Employees claims the government's grants for student needs education funding for the upcoming school year will result in a $2.3 million cut for the Lakehead District School board, with the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board also feeling a $1.3 million pinch.
That's bad news, Judge said.
"It's cuts across the board and they're leaving it for students to be resilient and work through," Judge said. "They will but it's really unfortunate we've come to this, that our most vulnerable are going to be the ones left with the burden of balancing the books."
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation, joined other provincial union leaders in making the trip to Thunder Bay for the rally.
Bischof said the government's plan to increase high school class sizes to an average of 28 will negatively affect students.
"We are easily going to see some classes go up to 40 or 45 students," Bischof said. "Students in those classes just can't get the kind of professional attention they get right now. We're going to have students who fall through the cracks. Our dropout rates are going to go up and they're going to lose opportunities to take the kind of courses they want to pursue their futures."
Education Minister Lisa Thompson last week announced a $1.6 billion directive mean to prevent teachers from being laid off as a result of larger class sizes. The province has also said it intends to require students to earn at least four credits through e-learning classes.
Bischof argued that the changes will result in fewer teaching positions.
"They're in the process right now of removing one out of every four high school teachers out of our secondary school system," Bischof said. "They want to cram kids into overpacked classes. They want to take away one out of every four class opportunities that they currently have. These are courses they could use to pursue their futures in the arts, in technology, in science.
Bischof insisted cutting education will have long lasting consequences.
"In threatening the school system, they're threatening the future economy of Ontario," Bischof said.
"We're going to be able to turn out less of the high quality graduates that we currently do. Businesses in Northern Ontario are going to have a harder time finding those students who are able to earn a high school (diploma), go on to post-secondary, move into the skilled trades."