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Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals, left, seen with Kathleen Wynne in May, has extended school trustees’ salary freeze.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario government is ordering school board trustees to reverse a decision to award themselves pay raises.

Trustees at several boards, including Windsor, Halton and the Durham region, recently passed motions to increase their honorariums, anticipating an end to the legislated four-year wage freeze for the public sector. They made the move even though Premier Kathleen Wynne's government says its central task is to get public sector unions to accept pay freezes and temper their expectations as the province struggles to eliminate the deficit.

Education Minister Liz Sandals sent a letter to trustees last week shortly after a Globe and Mail inquiry about the issue, saying the government decided to extend the salary freeze and it would apply to the new slate of trustees that takes over after the Oct. 27 municipal election.

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"In our climate of continued financial restraint, we are asking everyone to do their part to address Ontario's economic challenges," Ms. Sandals wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Globe.

Trustees were caught off guard, and say they do not see how denying them minimal hikes to their honorariums would pay off the provincial debt.

Trustees earn a base salary of $5,900 a year plus an extra amount based on their board's enrolment. Some receive about $6,900 annually, while others, especially in areas like Toronto and Peel, earn as much as $27,000 because of the size of their student populations. The job of trustee is considered part-time.

The Liberals introduced pay-freeze legislation in 2010 aimed at addressing the province's deep fiscal challenges. The Dalton McGuinty government announced in the 2012 budget that it was extending a two-year pay freeze for all public-sector workers.

In recent weeks, about half of the province's school boards voted in favour of cost-of-living adjustments to their honorariums. Others were planning to do so before the municipal elections. That would have resulted in as much as a $3,000 increase in some places, taking into account the enrolment adjustment.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said his board, the Durham District School Board, passed the motion earlier this month, which would have increased his $15,000 salary by about $585.

"It's not about the money. It's not. It's about being valued for what we contribute and what we are able to offer," he said. "There was no consultation. A lot of boards were quite taken aback and surprised by the minister's action."

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Mr. Barrett acknowledged the government's fiscal constraints. But he said other public sector workers can be creative with benefits, for example, and move money around to increase their compensation.

The province's teachers have just started negotiations on a new contract. Ms. Sandals told reporters that if all sides can find savings within the education budget, teachers and support workers could see a bump in pay.

Janet McDougald, chair of the Peel District School Board, said trustees at her board were about to vote on the increases when they received the minister's missive. Trustees in Peel earn about $27,000 a year.

Ms. McDougald said the government's move to freeze the honorariums was discouraging, because it appears the province does not think trustees are worth even cost-of-living increases.

"If you want to encourage people, if you want people to run for this role and see it as a very important role, then you need to recognize that in certain ways," she said. "It just doesn't show a lot of respect."

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