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Nearly one in five senior positions at Ontario school boards did not have any applicants over the past three years, according to a survey by the Council of Ontario Directors of Education that urges the province to lift an almost decade-long wage freeze for executives.

The survey of school boards also found that 16 per cent of successful candidates declined positions because of salary. Roughly 17 per cent of boards said no one applied for top positions, which include superintendents, associate directors and directors of education.

The survey was conducted in December and was released to The Globe and Mail as part of a response to an access-to-information request.

The Globe requested documents related to executive compensation and a recent salary increase awarded to the director of education at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

Earlier this year, The Globe reported that trustees at the Peterborough, Ont., school board approved a salary increase of almost 25 per cent to $257,600 for its director, Rita Russo, effective last August amid a wage freeze for public-sector executives. The board said the director assumed additional responsibilities as part of a senior team restructuring and received a “one-time salary adjustment.”

The documents included e-mails from Ms. Russo informing deputy education minister Nancy Naylor of The Globe’s inquiry into her salary increase. Ms. Naylor asked whether the board had a legal opinion, because “as you can appreciate everything related to exec comp attracts close attention.” The board received legal advice, Ms. Russo wrote. No further action was taken by Ms. Naylor or the Ministry of Education.

The suspension of salary increases for public-sector senior executives has been controversial. The previous Liberal government introduced public-sector restraint legislation in 2010, and salaries for executives earning more than $100,000 have been frozen for the better part of a decade. It’s unclear when the freeze will be lifted. School boards and other public organizations have said it limits their ability to attract and retain talent.

Christopher Martin-Chan, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board, said in an e-mail statement that the government recognizes the need to retain talent across the public sector.

“We continue to balance this important need along with careful consideration regarding the use of taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Martin-Chan wrote, adding that the government remains “committed to reviewing and establishing a sustainable approach” to public-sector executive compensation.

The documents from the Council of Ontario Directors of Education to the Ministry of Education outlined that the government saved as much as $25-million over the past decade in salary increases.

Meanwhile, nine Ministry of Education senior staff received bonuses totalling $164,000 in 2021 under the legislation freeze, according to the CODE documents.

CODE described the salary freeze as a “significant factor” when it comes to retaining and attracting executives, particularly in northern school boards.

It also stated that “increased Ministry requirements and accountability does not make the job appealing for potential applicants; with those on the business side of the organization, they are able to earn significantly more in the private and/or municipal sectors where restraints are not encountered.”

Laura Elliott, executive director of CODE, said the government has acknowledged that wages have been an issue in attracting executives. But she has also been told by ministry officials that the province wants to focus its attention on reaching collective agreements with teachers’ unions.

She said that potential applicants have turned down interviews when they are informed of the salary. The freeze has meant that some superintendents are earning similar salaries as principals, who have received incremental increases over the years. In some cases, principals are earning more than superintendents, she added, which makes it difficult for boards to entice people into more senior roles.

“We’re extremely concerned right now,” Ms. Elliott said. “When you look at the decade-long freeze … it’s a long period of time. We have seen collective agreements happening many times over that period and still senior teams have not had compensation reviewed and increased.”