04/03/2013 01:42 EDT | Updated 06/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario Elementary Teachers, ETFO Close To New Deal With Government

TORONTO - Ontario's public elementary teachers are close to reaching a new deal on changes to their current contracts after coming to several "understandings" with the governing Liberals, their union said Wednesday.

But the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said the government isn't adding new money to the pot.

"Government representatives have made it very clear and the premier has made it very clear publicly, there is no additional money," said ETFO President Sam Hammond.

"So we are working within (funding) envelopes ... and I would not be pushing for or advocating for — nor is the government — cuts in other areas to make up for how we move forward."

The new "understandings" include improvements to maternity leave benefits and better payouts for unused sick days for younger teachers — similar to what the government recently agreed to with high school teachers.

Bill 115, which imposed contracts on 140,000 public elementary and high school teachers in January to freeze wages for two years, also eliminated their ability to bank months worth of sick time to be cashed out on retirement.

It also wiped out any banked sick days for teachers with less than 10 years of experience, and cut the number of sick days going forward in half.

Under a new tentative agreement with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, teachers with less than 10 years on the job will get 25 cents on every dollar for sick days they banked, compared with 10 cents under existing agreements.

Hammond wouldn't say whether elementary teachers would get the same deal on unused sick days. ETFO has "understandings" with the government "to make adjustments that are respectful within the fiscal parametres as we move forward," he said.

ETFO doesn't have a finalized deal with the province and it's unclear when that will happen, Hammond said.

"We're not done," he said. "The message that I would say to our members is this is the beginning and there is a lot more work to do in these discussions."

Education Minister Liz Sandals said she's confident that a final agreement will be reached.

"From the beginning of our discussions with our partners we have been clear that anything we agree to must reflect our current fiscal situation and fit within the ministry's funding envelope," she said in a statement.

But the Progressive Conservatives say they don't believe that for a minute. The Liberals will take the money from somewhere else in the education budget, said Tory education critic Lisa MacLeod.

The Conservatives estimate the retirement gratuities alone could cost up to $63 million — the same amount it would cost to build two new schools, she said.

The Liberals are hiding the true costs of enhancing the contracts with teachers, just like they did with two cancelled gas plants, she said.

"Anybody that tells you that this won't cost anything, I have a power plant to sell them in Mississauga," MacLeod said.

Premier Kathleen Wynne, who officially took over from her predecessor Dalton McGuinty in February, has insisted for weeks that there's no new money for teachers.

Much progress has been made in repairing the relationship with teachers, she said Wednesday in Kingston, Ont.

"It will take some time for everyone to feel satisfied, but I'm very pleased with where we've gotten to and I'm optimistic about the future relationship," Wynne said.

ETFO told its members last week that it was OK to return to supervising extracurricular activities, which the union advised teachers to stop last fall to protest Bill 115.

Asked whether the protest was worth the harm done to students, Hammond said he doesn't feel they were hurt.

"I don't agree with you overall that there's been harm done here," he said.

"I would say to you, absolutely, the stand that we have taken, the position we've taken and the actions that we have implemented to get us to where we are have all been very much worth it."

Teachers in the Catholic and francophone systems accepted the wage-freeze contracts without having them imposed by the province.

Also on HuffPost

What's In The Ontario Budget 2012