Cockrill says province wants to come to a solution with teachers

February 6, 2024, 9:51 am
Kevin Weedmark

Saskatchewan Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill, speaking in Moosomin last year when he was Highways Minister. The World-Spectator spoke with Cockrill last week about the labor dispute with the Saskatchewan Teachersí Federation and what it will take to find common ground between the province and the teachers.

The World-Spectator spoke with Saskatchewan Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill Wednesday to get his thoughts on the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation strike. The full interview follows:

How would you classify this dispute? How would you describe what the issues are here?
Well, I think itís disappointing. If this is really all about the kids, then I think as adults, both sides owe it to the kids to get back in the room and negotiate as adults and not affect the kids. And so itís unfortunate in my mind, and disappointing, that we have to see kids miss school, kids miss extracurriculars because two sides seem to be unable to sit down in the same room.

So itís a little bit frustrating becauseóyou know certainly, Kevin≠óIíve expressed from my side, multiple times, that weíre at the table, weíre ready to continue talking. Thatís what the conciliatorís report recommended, is keep talking. So Iím hopeful that we can get back to that point, but it doesnít seem like the other side is very interested in that at this point, or certainly the leadership on that side.

The one issue that the STF keeps raising, and talking to a few of the teachers out picketing and just around town, they seem to reflect what the leadership was saying about the classroom complexity issue, and how tough it is to teach when some of the supports have been taken away, they donít have the same teacher assistants and other supports for kids with extra needs. And theyíre saying that thatís impacting learning. The union is saying thatís something they want to talk about at the provincial level and you wonít. Can you explain your thoughts on that?
Yeah, absolutely.

First of all, I would say when it comes to classroom complexity, Iíve had the opportunity to visit several schools around the province and in communities large and small. I think one of the challenges we have in education, generally speaking right nowóand this isnít just Saskatchewan, because Iíve talked to my colleagues across the countryóis that we have a wider variety of needs than weíve ever seen before in the K-12 system. And I also do think that we have likely a larger proportion of kids that need additional supports in the classroom.

Obviously, we want to make sure that supports are provided and thatís done to help those kids in their classroom experience. So I fully acknowledge there are some challenges and we need to work on that. I know that the Teachers Federation didnít seem to be very impressed with the pilot projects that weíve put out, but this is exactly what weíre trying to address through those two pilot projects, both the Specialized Support Classroom pilot and the Teacher Innovation and Support Fund pilot. So certainly, from the government side, we acknowledge there are issues, there are challenges, absolutely.

And those challenges are in communities like Moosoman and theyíre in Saskatoon and Regina as well. But the difference, the key point is that while I think the challenges are similar, I think the solutions are going to be different based on where you live in the province. Whatís going to work in a Moosomin or Rocanville, it may not be the same solution that weíre working on in Saskatoon or Regina or Prince Albert or Battleford, for example. These communities are all different, based on size, based on demographics, and based on the ability to attract professionals as well.

I think thatís the biggest reason that we really canít see a positive way forward in terms of negotiating complexity on a provincial level, is I think it really handcuffs that local voice in education.

Thereís a reason that we have 27 school boards in this province. Thereís locally elected trustees from all over the province that work in their school divisions to allocate the resources that they have and ensure that they are doing the best they can to manage within their respective school divisions and for their respective schools and students. So, what the union is asking for is essentially to take on the role of local school boards. And Iím certainly not prepared to just take that role from school boards and hand it over to the teachersí union.

But the school boards are saying they can only work with the resources that they have. And those resources are pretty much entirely determined by the provincial government. So isnít there a role at the provincial level to determine if more of those resources could flow to school divisions to address some of those issues?
Yeah, Iíd say thatís exactly what I work on every single day. Iíve had the opportunity to meet most of the school divisions around the province at this point.

Iím meeting with several more in the next couple of weeks as well, just to get a sense of local needs. We have a budget coming up as we normally do in March, and weíre actively looking at how we can further support school divisions to make those decisions.

Kevin, you cover provincial issues, but you cover them from a Moosomin and a southeast Saskatchewan perspective. And the reality is that those issues affect your communities or any issue affects your communities differently than it may affect my home community, for example.

So I think thatís where having flexibility around the province in terms of how we address issues in education, like classroom complexity is important. Applying one kind of ratio across the province, I donít think thatís a good thing long term for K-12 education in Saskatchewan.

Do you think at this point, are the teachers winning the public relations battle? When those two one-day strikes took place in Moosomin, you had a lot of businesses and individuals going out of their way to show that theyíre there behind the teachers. Do you think the teachers have the public on side at this point?
Well, hey, we live in Saskatchewan. We never like to see somebody out in the cold, right?

Those first two days were rather cold. However, you mark your ballot, you know, you never like to see people out in the cold.

And I donít think Moosomin was unusual in its desire to support people standing outside in minus 35 or minus 40 degrees.

Iíve been reflecting on some of these issues. Every day I do. And whenever we have issues affect our kids or our grandkids or our nieces or nephews, theyíre very emotional issues.

And rightfully so. These are our kids. Theyíre the future of our province that we care so much about.

And at the end of the day, we want to see whatís best for the kids be done. And so I think whenever itís an emotional issue like that, I think it can be challenging for government to get its message across effectively.

The reality is that from a budgetary perspective, of course, we want to invest more in education. Absolutely. We invest over two billion dollars in education each and every single year.

Thatís the highest per capita out of any province in the country. That means your family, my family, your neighborís family, more of our tax dollars go to education than anywhere else in the country.

I think, though, sometimes when itís an emotional discussion, itís hard to speak clearly about the facts and about the numbers. So I fully acknowledge that. Whenever weíre in an emotional discussion like this, itís going to be challenging to come to a point where both sides can feel like theyíre communicating effectively and getting to a solution thatís going to work for everybody. I certainly hope that we can. I certainly hope that we can have these discussions at the table, because thatís where weíre going to get a deal done.

And thatís really what I think this comes down to, Kevin. If this is all about the kids, then letís prioritize that. Letís get the adults back in the room together and continue working on how we get a deal done.

What will be the provincial response if the STF continues to escalate its job action?
We acknowledge that there are issues around complexity in the classroom.

Weíve been as clear as possible that, yes, there are issues and yes, weíre doing something about it. Thatís exactly what these pilot projects are meant to address. And, you know, thereís some concern out there that weíre not going to expand the pilot projects for a year and a half.

And Iíve said publicly, thatís not true. If we start to see positive results, we will look at expanding ideas that work. Iím interested in finding solutions that work and then funding those solutions.

In terms of further provincial response beyond that, we have a bargaining mandate, as does the Teachersí Federation leadership on their side. Weíve been clear about what we will not negotiate, about the items that we will negotiate. Thatís exactly what we want to get back and talk about.

Weíre open to reviewing some items of our mandate, but itís hard to do that when youíre the only one at the table.

So Iím hoping that both sides can find their way back to a place where we can actually be discussing the issues that can be negotiated and hopefully coming to an agreement.

How quickly could those pilot projects be expanded if they do prove to be a success?
The specialized support classroom pilot thatís going to get up and running here, likely this month in those eight school divisions across the province, myself and my team are in close contact with those school divisions on a regular basis. And so weíre looking forward to getting those specialized support classrooms up and running.

The teachers innovation support fund, Iím going to be reviewing the first batch of applications here in the next week or two. And hopefully thereís some good ideas in there that we can start to execute on in this school year. Thatís what Iím hoping.

In terms of further expansion of the pilot projects, the specialized support classroom pilot, if we were able to do that sooner, it would likely be in September just because that pilot does require staffing up. It requires dedicated space. So, again, I think that we would look to potentially expand that as early as the fall pending the results that we see this spring.

Whatís your message to the STF and whatís your message to parents?
I hate to see kids missing learning days in school.

I hate to see kids missing opportunities for extracurriculars. Extracurriculars are so important to some kids.

When I was that age, sports was the reason that I went to school some days. Thatís what keeps you engaged and keeps you focused so that you can play on the basketball team or track and field or soccer or whatever the sport may be for you.

If itís really about the kids, then we owe it to the kids to get back to the bargaining table and find our way through this. And for parents, parents need to know that we as a government are working diligently to find a way through these interruptions.

And then weíre also looking at ways to continue expanding how we invest in education and ensuring that additional investment reaches the classroom floor as much as possible. Thatís what weíre looking to do. If weíre going to continue to make additional investment, we want to ensure that it reaches students and that the students that do need supports out there across the province have improved access to those supports.

Best case scenario, if you could write the script, how would you like to see this resolved?
The only way to resolve it is at the table.

We are reviewing parts of our bargaining mandate. I hope, I sincerely hope, that the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation is also looking at theirs because itís going to take two sides to make this work. And Iíve committed publicly to reviewing parts of our mandate.

I hope the Teachers Federation is doing the same. But the only way that weíre going to get through this is by both sides being at the bargaining table. Itís going to require the Teachers Federation leadership to make a decision to come back to the bargaining table.

And, you know, for the good of their members, for the good of the kids, I think that would be the right thing to do, so that both sides can continue talking and we can get a deal done.

And the sooner the better. When it comes to our kids and grandkids, I think we owe it to them to get to a resolution as soon as we can.