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The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board approved a salary of $257,600 for their director of education.CLIFFORD SKARSTEDT JR/The Canadian Press

An Ontario school board director received a salary increase of almost 25 per cent just weeks before the academic year began, a raise that arrived during a wage freeze for public-sector executives.

Trustees at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Peterborough approved a salary of $257,600 for their director of education, Rita Russo, effective this past August, according to documents obtained through an access-to-information request.

Ms. Russo was hired to lead the school board beginning in January, 2021, for a five-year term at a salary of $208,000.

The Globe and Mail obtained a copy of the director’s employment contract, and a letter from the board’s former chair to Ms. Russo last July stating that trustees approved a motion for a “one-time adjustment” to her salary effective in August.

Public-sector wage regulations have been contentious. The province has frozen the salaries of senior executives – those earning more than $100,000 – for the better part of a decade under successive acts and regulations, despite criticism in some quarters that it limits the ability of public organizations to attract and retain talent.

The wages of teachers and education workers have also been limited. Teachers’ unions are negotiating a new contract. The province restricted wage increases in the last round of bargaining to 1 per cent annually under Bill 124, which is currently in limbo after being struck down by a judge, pending an appeal.

The government recently reached a deal with its 55,000 education support workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, that included a $1-an-hour wage hike each year of a four-year contract, amounting to an average annual increase of 3.59 per cent. CUPE said these workers earned on average $39,000 a year.

Steve Russell, chair of the Kawartha school board, said in a statement to The Globe that accompanied the documents earlier this month that the director received “a one-time salary adjustment” as part of a broader reorganization at the board that removed one superintendent position, added an associate director and gave new “reporting responsibilities” to Ms. Russo.

He wrote that trustees consulted legal counsel and “believe the reorganization was a bona fide restructuring” under the provincial regulation that governs executive compensation. “We are very aware of, and take seriously, the requirements and responsibilities set out within the provincial Broader Compensation Act,” Mr. Russell wrote.

Ms. Russo has assumed direct reporting responsibilities for several executive officers at her board whose portfolios include information and communications technology, facilities, mental health and wellness, and human rights, equity and accessibility, Mr. Russell wrote.

Ms. Russo’s employment contract when she accepted her position stated that she would “co-ordinate the activities of all departments and be responsible for their efficient operation.”

Mr. Russell wrote the salaries of senior administrators are comparable to other similar school boards. “We also believe our framework is compliant with provincial legislation and balances the need to responsibly manage compensation costs with the need to attract and retain executive talent to ensure continued progress in student achievement and success,” he wrote.

A board spokesperson said that because the matter relates to a board decision, the chair, and not Ms. Russo, would comment. The board said that salaries for senior administrators are funded through provincial grants, and all salaries fall within approved provincial funding parameters.

Treasury Board spokesperson Ian Allen said that the executive compensation framework “accounts for restructuring needs of organizations.” The salary of newly hired executives is limited to the salary of the previous person in that position, he said.

Mr. Allen did not respond to The Globe’s questions about whether Ms. Russo’s salary increase was allowable within the rules.

About 34,000 students are enrolled at the Kawartha school board. In comparison, the director at the Grand Erie District School Board in Brantford, which has 26,000 students, earned roughly $208,000 in 2021, according to the government’s public salary disclosure list. The long-time director of the Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor, with a student population of 36,000, earned about $258,000 in 2021.

The director of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which has 235,000 students, earns just over $290,000.

The TDSB, the York Region District School Board and the Peel District School Board – the biggest school boards in the province – said they haven’t adjusted executive compensation since the latest iteration of the regulatory freeze was implemented in August, 2018.

The previous Liberal government first put in place the freeze on executive compensation in 2010. A framework, which included public consultations within communities, allowed for raises in 2017.

However, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government suspended salary increases in 2018 for public-sector senior executives, including those at school boards, universities, colleges and hospitals, effectively reinstating a wage freeze.

Laura Elliott, executive director of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, said her organization has spoken with government staff about lifting the wage freeze. Ontario and British Columbia are the only provinces with legislative freezes on executive compensation, she said.

School principals and managers in 27 boards have seen incremental wage increases because they don’t fall under the executive freeze and are earning similar salaries as superintendents in their boards. In some cases, they are earning more than superintendents, which makes it challenging to recruit them into executive positions, Ms. Elliott said.

The government has told Ms. Elliott’s organization that it wants to focus its attention on reaching collective agreements with teachers’ unions.

“The government needs to do something in terms of repealing the legislation. That’s something we’ve asked for. It does not sit well with directors and superintendents, because when you look at this, it’s been 10 years and we’ve gone through several iterations of collective bargaining,” Ms. Elliott said, adding: “It is long overdue.”

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