HALIFAX - Major changes to Nova Scotia's education system are on the way after the provincial government introduced a sweeping omnibus bill that will eliminate seven English language school boards and alter the composition of the union that represents public school teachers.
Premier Stephen McNeil approved some last-minute changes to the bill tabled Thursday, which prompted the 9,600-member Nova Scotia Teachers Union to drop its threat to stage an illegal walkout.
"A strike has been averted," union president Liette Doucet told a news conference at the union's Halifax headquarters. "I know this has been a stressful time. We are very aware of the impact a strike could have on families, and it was a big part of our decision making process."
Doucet said the union doesn't agree with the legislation, but would work with the province to implement changes that will improve classroom conditions for students and teachers.
"The legislation ... does nothing to benefit students," she said. "We will continue to educate government as to what students really need to succeed."
Education Minister Zach Churchill said he was pleased with the union's decision.
"This is a great opportunity for us to enter into a new phase of our relationship," he said. "We've got to rebuild some trust."
Earlier, Churchill said the seven regional boards will be dissolved as of March 31. As well, principals, vice-principals and senior supervisory staff will be removed from the union and rolled into a new association affiliated with the NSTU.
Their seniority and pay will be protected and they will continue to pay dues to the teachers union. However, they won't be able to unionize or take job action.
"These are reasonable changes that have been a long time coming," said Churchill. "For the teachers and principals who have been concerned ... we have acted on their concerns."
The changes come after the union overwhelmingly voted last week in favour of illegal job action to protest any attempts to remove about 1,000 senior administrators from its ranks, as recommended in a recent report by consultant Avis Glaze.
In a compromise move, the government said it will work with teachers and their union to develop teaching and leadership standards instead of creating a college of educators, as recommended by Glaze.
"What we're seeing here is a bit of movement, a bit of a backdown," Doucet said.
The Nova Scotia School Boards Association issued a statement saying it remains concerned about the loss of "elected voices for students and communities." Association president Hank Middleton said the elimination of the seven boards removes a "level of democratic representation for the people of Nova Scotia."
The government said it has also agreed to work with the union on extracurricular activities, professional development, teacher recruitment, rural education, the educational needs of new immigrants, French language education, students living in poverty and children in care.
The premier said his government has addressed union concerns expressed in two previous meetings with Doucet.
"We have compromised to the point where we can move this bill forward, knowing full well that the decisions we have made are in the best interests of kids and the system," said McNeil.
While the Acadian school board will remain in place, the other boards will be replaced by a new Provincial Advisory Council of Education composed of 15 members representing all regions of the province.
Two of those seats will be held by representatives of the African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq communities. As well, a representative with experience in inclusive education will sit on the council.
Once the boards are dissolved, a one-time payout will go to elected board members to cover stipends through to the end of their current terms in 2020. Government officials said after that, $2.3 million in annual savings would "go back into schools."
An act to oversee the Acadian board will be introduced later in the session, the government said.
Kenneth Gaudet, chairman of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) issued a statement praising the new Education Reform Act.
"A law that the CSAP can call its own is much more than symbolic," he said. "For the first time, there will be a unique structure for French first language education. This new framework will inform a symbiotic, 'win-win' relationship."
School board offices will remain in place, but they will become regional education centres. The centres will continue to make regional and local decisions. However, the superintendents will report to the deputy minister of education.
Tim Halman, the Progressive Conservative education critic and a former teacher, said the legislation leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
"They have vaporized elected school boards," said Halman. "Where do parents go if they have concerns about the school system?"
The NDP's Claudia Chender said it appears the government listened to some of the union's concerns.
"Although we see concessions in this bill ... it obviously would have been better to have respectful and principled bargaining happen before the introduction of a piece of legislation that fundamentally changes the nature of the association of educators in this province," she said.