POLITICS

Return of extracurriculars at public schools will take time: Wynne

02/13/2013 04:02 EST | Updated 04/15/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - For parents and students waiting for the return of extracurricular activities in schools — don't expect them any time soon.

That's the message from the governing Liberals after a meeting Wednesday with school board officials and the union representing public elementary teachers.

"Would I like to be able to say we've reached a conclusion and extracurriculars will be back tomorrow? Obviously I would like to," said Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose staff attended the morning meeting.

"I can't give them that assurance right now, but I'm optimistic. The conversations are very positive and so I'm looking forward to a good outcome, I hope, in the near future."

Newly minted Education Minister Liz Sandals wouldn't say what the teachers want in exchange for the return of the after-school activities, which ground to a halt in their labour battle with the province over new contracts.

The unions had said it was possible that teachers could withdraw from those voluntary tasks for two years in protest of a controversial anti-strike law brought in by the Liberals.

The government used the legislation to force new two-year contracts on 126,000 teachers in January that cut benefits and froze of their wages. The Liberals repealed it just before the leadership convention where Wynne was anointed the next premier, but the contracts still stand.

During the leadership campaign, Wynne was adamant that she wouldn't rip up the contracts and hammer out new ones — something the teachers had demanded.

Sandals said Wednesday that teachers want to resume extracurriculars and she's hopeful that the matter will be resolved. But things won't change overnight.

"So we're not going to negotiate some amazing new deal on the turn of a dime in the next few hours," said the former school board trustee.

"What we all understand our first priority needs to be is what's going on in schools."

One of the biggest challenges Wynne faces is repairing the Liberals' relationship with the teachers, a powerful group that has helped keep the party in power for nine years.

It may need to happen sooner rather than later now that two Liberals are giving up their seats Thursday.

The unions put boots to the ground in byelection last September that could have the Liberals a majority government, using their resources to get the vote out for the New Democrats. The NDP won the riding for the first time in their history, while the Liberals came in third.

The sudden departures of former cabinet ministers Dwight Duncan and Chris Bentley may kick Liberal talks with teachers into overdrive.

Wynne says there will be more talks with secondary school union representatives soon.