04/11/2012 02:36 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Province ups pressure on elementary teachers, urges return to current talks

TORONTO - The province is turning up the pressure on elementary school teachers to return to discussions guiding their contract talks for the second time this week, suggesting terms could be imposed if they stay away.

Education Minister Laurel Broten has sent a letter to all 72 boards in the province saying that if elementary teachers opt out of the ongoing discussions and go straight to local bargaining, they will have to meet whatever framework is worked out in the current forum.

That means the government could impose a contract that freezes their wages and salaries and takes away their right to bank sick days.

"It is my strong preference that all federations remain at or return to the PDT (provincial discussion table)," Broten said in the letter.

"But in the event that some local bargaining proceeds, it is my expectation that schools boards be mindful of their responsibility to Ontario families to negotiate agreements that are within the government's fiscal parameters and that do not have a negative impact on student achievement or the classroom experience."

The letter comes after she accused the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario on Monday of walking away from a discussion table that has proven productive in the past.

Those discussions allow teacher and staff unions and trustee associations to discuss issues and come up with a framework to take into local collective bargaining.

If the elementary teachers opt to bypass the ongoing talks and go straight into local bargaining, the letter says, all those boards will have to abide by the framework set with the other unions.

"To achieve our fiscal plan and protect the education services that families rely on, the government's plan requires strong management of current and future compensation costs," Broten wrote.

The letter is a first for a government that has had good relationships with the province's unions, and was able to negotiate frameworks in 2005 and 2008.

But the cash-strapped Liberals have made it clear with their most recent budget that everyone in the public sector must do their part to help bring down the deficit, and that includes teachers.

Broten said in an interview Wednesday that she sent the letter because she wanted to speak directly to board chairs about the importance of the current process.

The wage freeze and several other proposals aren't legislated, which means there is still room for discussion as all parties try to come up with a framework that makes sense for all involved.

"We proposed in the budget and in advance to our conversation with teachers, the salary freeze, including the salary grid freeze, the changes to the retirement gratuity and the sick day plans and the need to improve the sustainability of the pension plan," Broten said.

"Those are the choices that we're advancing. Conversations, obviously, are taking place at the PDT and I'll leave those conversations there."

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has yet to respond to Broten's comments or letter, and declined to do speak about the matter Wednesday.

They say they plan to respond at a news conference scheduled for Thursday morning.

Teacher contracts are set to expire in August.