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The Ontario government plans to phase out 3,475 teaching positions over the next four years – for an estimated annual saving of $292-million by the fourth year, according to memos sent to school board directors.

The job cuts would work out to an average of less than one teaching position for each of the province’s almost 5,000 publicly funded elementary and secondary schools.

The figures in the memos, which were sent on Wednesday, are the first to outline how many positions the education ministry says will be lost through attrition as a result of changes to class sizes in some elementary grades and in high schools.

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Unions and an education advocacy group made higher estimates for the job losses in recent days, after Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced that the average class size would increase by one student in grades 4 to 8, and from 22 to 28 students in high school.

Several school boards have warned that it will also mean the loss of elective courses that require small groupings of students, including art and the skilled trades.

The memos say the plan will save about $851-million over four years.

The Progressive Conservative government, which is trying to get a handle on the province’s finances, is also setting the stage for potential battles with public-sector unions, on Thursday floating the idea of legislated caps on wage hikes for everyone from teachers to hospital workers.

The teachers unions have objected to the plans for increased class sizes and mandated online courses for high schools – changes that prompted thousands of students to walk out Thursday.

In their own words: Ontario students voice opposition to Ford’s proposed education changes

In comments in the Legislature later echoed by Ms. Thompson, Premier Doug Ford said “union bosses” were using the protesting students as a “bunch of pawns.” Ms. Thompson issued a statement calling for any teacher who skipped class to be disciplined. However, teachers’ unions said they did not organize Thursday’s walkouts. They are planning a protest on Saturday at Queen’s Park.

And with contract talks looming, Mr. Ford’s government has introduced a regulation that would allow it to start bargaining with education unions as early as April 29, a month ahead of the traditional schedule. The move suggests the Progressive Conservatives want to take steps to minimize labour disruptions in the next academic year. Contracts for all education unions expire at the end of August.

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An e-mail sent by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) to its members on Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, informed teachers of this change. The union said in the e-mail that notification to begin bargaining typically is permitted within a period that begins 90 days before contracts expire, which would mean in early June. The heads of both OECTA and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said on Thursday they would consider it.

Meanwhile, the notion of a legislated cap on wage increases across the public sector surfaced on Thursday, a week before Mr. Ford’s government unveils its first budget, which is expected to lay out a “path to balance” for what it says is the province’s $13.5-billion deficit.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy told a business luncheon the province is launching a six-week consultation exercise for scores of unions and employers in the public sector – universities, colleges, hospitals and other agencies, as well as government workers – to find ways to keep wage settlements “modest.”

According to a sample of the form letters sent to potential participants, the government says it is also “considering legislated caps” for any wage hikes included in its future collective bargaining agreements or arbitrated settlements, and asked for feedback.

Mr. Bethlenfalvy said everything is on the table, including voluntary agreements that lead to lower wage hikes, “trade-offs” in exchange for smaller pay cheques – as well as “consideration of legislative measures.”

In his speech, he pointed to Ontario’s $72-billion annual public sector wage bill – half of all government spending – as a driving force behind the province’s status as the most indebted subnational government in the world. He said public-sector workers are paid 30 per cent more on average than those in the private sector.

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The consultation process was immediately panned by Warren (Smokey) Thomas, head of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU): “I think he’s [the Premier] spoiling for a war with labour. We’re not looking to go to war, but I kind of think we are already in one.”

However, he said his union would participate, adding that OPSEU has its own ideas for savings, including reducing what he called an oversupply of management staff at many government agencies. On the idea of legislated wage caps, he said recent wage hikes for many of his members were already modest, in the 1.4-per-cent range.

Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, was critical of the idea of a legislated wage cap, noting the unions’ successful court challenge of the former Liberal government’s 2012 move to delay raises and suspend teachers’ right to strike.

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