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Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals scrums with the media following question period at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Education Minister Liz Sandals's office is auditing school boards across Ontario to determine how many senior staffers received pay hikes that contravene a public-sector wage freeze. And for the first time since the freeze came into force three years ago, Ms. Sandals is stipulating which board employees are affected by the legislation and ordering those given raises to repay the money.

The minister is clamping down after a controversy over the salary of the top-ranking staffer at the Toronto District School Board. Ms. Sandals is giving education directors at the province's 72 public, separate and French-language school boards until Friday to provide her ministry with the materials needed for the audits. These include declarations on whether their own salaries and those of superintendents and other executives comply with the legislation. Any boards that raised salaries must present the ministry with a repayment plan by April 2 that can include unpaid days off for the employees or a reduction in future compensation.

The Toronto board's education director, Donna Quan, agreed to a pay cut in January, just days after Ms. Sandals ordered the school board to reduce her salary from $289,000 to $272,000, which is what her predecessor earned.

Former board chair Chris Bolton awarded Ms. Quan a $17,000 pay increase, ignoring an edict from Ms. Sandals in January, 2014, to freeze her salary. Ms. Quan was not the only senior staffer at the board who received a salary boost, according to a Globe and Mail review of the annual list of public-sector workers who earn more than $100,000. Board spokesman Ryan Bird confirmed that salaries were "adjusted" for 15 employees, just fewer than one third of the senior management team.

Many other school boards plan to challenge the minister's interpretation of the legislation, education sources say, setting the stage for a showdown. The issue, they say, is a lack of clarity about which employees are affected by the freeze.

In a letter to school board chairs last month, Ms. Sandals outlined for the first time her interpretation of to whom the freeze applies: education directors, superintendents and those holding executive positions regardless of job title.

But her interpretation is at odds with the legislation, the sources say.

An organization representing education directors has a fresh legal opinion reiterating earlier ones that said superintendents should be treated the same as principals and vice-principals, who are exempt from the freeze. Julian Hanlon, chair of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, said the group sought the latest legal opinion in response to some members' concerns about to Ms. Sandals's letter.

Several superintendents at six boards reviewed by The Globe, including the Peel District School Board, moved up the salary grid in 2013. Tony Pontes, director of the Peel board, said the legal opinions stipulate that superintendents who bargain collectively through an association are eligible for increases. As a result, he said, superintendents at the Peel board will continue to move up the salary grid.

"We are required to follow the letter of the law, not its intent," he said. "We follow collective agreements the way they're written, not the way they might have been intended."

School boards sought legal advice after former premier Dalton McGuinty's government introduced the wage-freeze legislation for non-unionized public-sector workers in March, 2012.

Not all boards followed the legal advice. Catherine Montreuil, director of the Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board, said salaries for senior staff have been "frozen solid" since then.

"We believe that the message to us was, we were to be frozen and that's what we did," she said.

Ms. Sandals's letter says her staff may conduct more in-depth audits on compensation for superintendents and other executives at some boards. Her office is conducting the audits just as the province's teachers are negotiating a new contract. Union leaders and the Education Ministry are talking under a media blackout. But the ministry is under pressure to shave up to $500-million, or 2 per cent, from its budget as part of the government's plan to erase the provincial deficit of $12.5-billion by fiscal 2017-18.

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