TORONTO - Ontario can no longer afford to allow teachers to bank sick days and get a large payout on retirement and also needs to freeze their wages for two years, Education Minister Laurel Broten said Thursday.
Some school boards don't have the provision, but most teachers in Ontario can bank 20 sick days a year, up to 200 days over their career, and get paid a lump sum averaging $46,000 when they retire.
Teachers' sick days amount to a $1.7-billion liability and can't be sustained by a government facing a $16-billion deficit, said Broten.
"A cash-out of more than 200 days is not sustainable in the long term and not in line with the current fiscal reality we have in the province," she said.
"A sick day that a teacher might accumulate this year, at their salary in their first or second year of teaching, is paid out at the end of the career at the salary level they have at that instance."
Economist Don Drummond recommended the province lift its cap on class sizes and eliminate full-day kindergarten, which will cost $1.5 billion a year, ideas the Liberal government has already rejected, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Thursday in Thunder Bay.
"We can’t grow education funding at the same rate that we did in the past, but we do believe that we can protect the progress that we made," said McGuinty, the self-proclaimed "education premier."
"We can protect class sizes and full-day kindergarten, and we can also protect jobs, but it does require that we put in place the kind of salary freeze that we have proposed to teachers."
The government wants to limit teachers to six sick days a year and eliminate their ability to accumulate them and be paid out, although sick days that have already been banked will be protected.
Ontario teachers start at $41,766 to $44,292, and can make up to $92,813 in elementary schools and $94,942 in secondary schools, depending on years of service and education.
The government wants to freeze the grid so no one gets a raise because of seniority or improved credentials.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario walked out of contract talks Wednesday, a week after they were first given details of the government's position.
"To say we were insulted is an understatement," said Sam Hammond, the federation's president.
"We find the tone and, most significantly, the content of the government’s parameters to be offensive to all ETFO members and cannot be a party to what amounts to deep and mean-spirited strips to our collective agreements," he said in a statement.
Hammond was not available to comment further on Thursday.
The Progressive Conservatives said they doubted the Liberals would have the backbone to actually freeze teachers' salaries, and said all one million public sector workers in Ontario should have their pay frozen for two years.
"We support a legislative wage freeze for everybody (in the public sector)," said Opposition education critic Lisa MacLeod.
"Mr. McGuinty’s not prepared to make that sacrifice and what we’re now seeing is negotiations through the media rather than at the table, and that’s going to be quite divisive."
The New Democrats also complained that the Liberals were negotiating with the teachers through the media, but wouldn't say if they thought the sick days provision should be eliminated.
"I can’t on the one hand criticize the government for bargaining through the media and then jump into that game myself," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"I think specifically because it is a tough round of bargaining that’s ahead of the teachers and the government that they should be doing it in a productive way, and by whipping things up in the media I don’t think is very positive."
Broten denied the government was negotiating through the media, and asked the teachers to remember all the improvements they've had in pay, preparation time and benefits under the Liberals as the negotiations go forward.
Contracts for teachers and school support staff expire Aug. 31, and the government is seeking only a two-year deal after going for four-year agreements in the last two sets of negotiations.