Toronto’s Catholic elementary teachers’ union has launched a grievance against the school board — and is seeking a $25,000 payout — after a sudden influx of Ukrainian children from the war-torn country last spring boosted class sizes beyond their caps, the Star has learned.
A copy of the grievance says class sizes ended up higher than the limit set out in the collective agreement — at least two senior elementary classes had about 40 students, or nine students over the limit — along with other contract violations.
It calls for the large payment to the union as well as extra wages for affected teachers.
The move has upset members of the Ukrainian community who feel the situation is being exploited, especially given that staff and families quickly pulled together to raise funds and help those who fled the violence. But the union says it is fighting for better resources in the three affected schools.
“As a board and as trustee for a large Ukrainian community, we are moving mountains to provide supports to students coming from war-torn Ukraine,” said Ward 2 Trustee Markus de Domenico, who had not seen the grievance.
“Our staff and administrators have done everything possible to help these children (who) have lost family members and have been traumatized. This is a humanitarian crisis, and I would hope and pray all parties involved would be on board to help.”
News of the union’s complaints comes as the Ukrainian community this week celebrated Independence Day and marked six months since the Russian invasion.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board runs three Eastern Rite schools, with large Ukrainian populations and some Ukrainian-speaking staff: St. Demetrius, St. Josaphat and Josyf Cardinal Slipyj.
After the war began, school populations swelled and some classes hit the 30s as families streamed into Canada fleeing their homeland.
Teachers at the schools have said they did not file the grievances.
Julie Altomare-Di Nunzio, president of the Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers, would not confirm if individual complaints were lodged. She initially said the union local, known as TECT, “does not discuss grievances with the media.”
However, she later said the union has been “advocating for these vulnerable students who came from Ukraine,” and that, in the spring, “the board thought it was acceptable to treat these students unfairly. Specifically, no other student in our board is jammed in a class of 40 students,” and some primary classes were, at times, taught by uncertified teachers.
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She explained the $25,000 payout the union is seeking, which comes on top of additional wages for teachers who had larger classes, is because “damages are common in our grievances. It just ensures that there’s accountability for what occurred.”
The union grievance says the larger classes “created undue hardship and increased workload” and that a “lack of timely information has had a significant negative impact and damage to the reputation of the union with the members.”
In a statement to the Star, the Toronto Catholic District School Board said the three Eastern Rite elementary schools, “along with our secondary schools, accepted more than 170 students from Ukraine” in the second half of the school year, “and will continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees in the upcoming school year. School administrators and staff have gone above and beyond to ensure students from Ukraine have a safe and welcoming place to learn.”
As the students began arriving from Ukraine in large numbers, the board “dispatched occasional teachers to each of the affected elementary schools to support new students, and new classrooms were created and staffed for the remainder of the 2021/22 school year. Staffing for all schools across the system, including the three elementary schools (noted above) that received Ukrainian students, is being finalized for the upcoming school year.”
Altomare-Di Nunzio said the union is working with the board to bring in additional English-as-a-Second-Language teachers this fall.
Families at the schools told the Star they are “distressed” by the union action, given the dire circumstances of the Ukrainians.
The Toronto Catholic elementary teachers union has landed in hot water before with families, in particular after a prolonged job action that saw no extracurriculars, bare-bones report cards, no parent-teacher interviews, no end-of-year celebrations for kids, and a memo advising members not to take part in Christmas concerts on top of the disruption of the pandemic.
On Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce addressed the issue, a day after visiting one of the Eastern Rite schools to mark Ukrainian independence.
“Ontario has extended open arms to children fleeing war and it is our collective duty to do everything possible to support them with an education,” he said. “I am very proud of the community, along with educators and schools, for rallying behind these innocent children and that must continue. The entire world continues to stand with Ukraine against Putin’s illegal war and we expect nothing less from everyone involved in the care of these traumatized children afflicted by war.”
A family member at one of the schools that welcomed a huge number of Ukrainian children said they were not aware of any parent complaints about class sizes.
“What are we supposed to do? Turn our back to them? We’re not going to do that. We’re going to open up our homes, our churches, our schools to the refugees and support them … even when it’s hard to do.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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