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A teacher tests an eight-year-old student at Moraine Hills Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., in March, 2007.PHILIP CHEUNG/The Globe and Mail

Ontario school boards awarded raises averaging 3 per cent a year to many senior staff, despite a provincial wage freeze on management salaries.

The revelation of salary hikes at school boards exposes weaknesses in wage-freeze legislation meant to cut costs, but filled with loopholes that several groups have used to hike salaries. At Ontario Power Generation, almost one-third of managers received increases in 2012 and as did 8 per cent of managers at Hydro One.

School boards implemented the raises for superintendents and associate directors, ranging between 2 and 12 per cent, between 2010 and 2012 after receiving legal advice that the province's legislation allowed for increases. The Globe and Mail obtained minutes of an April, 2010, meeting among staff in the Premier's Office, education ministry officials and school board representatives at which boards were told they could determine whether managers would receive pay increases.

School boards left the meeting with the understanding that the government would not challenge such raises.

The Ministry of Education conceded that the 2010 legislation, known as Bill 16, was weak. Funding to school boards from the ministry was not reduced to account for potential salary savings, but the ministry said that any savings from wages were expected to be directed to education programming. There are no current plans for senior staff to pay the money back.

The Globe's analysis of salaries in the education sector was prompted by a recent audit report of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) that revealed about $1.29-million in wage hikes went to senior staff and superintendents, in contravention of the freeze. Boards in the province say the range in increases found could reflect seniority-grid movement, cashed-in vacation days, as well as cost-of-living increases of 3 per cent, similar to those received by unionized education workers.

The Ontario government introduced public-sector wage restraint legislation in 2010 that froze salaries for two years for non-unionized employees. Then premier Dalton McGuinty called for the freeze to help the province reduce its record $21.3-billion deficit. However, lawyers hired by school boards pointed to a clause in Bill 16 that exempted groups who "bargain collectively." Superintendents have a provincial-level association and have salaries set in a range and so could plausibly be interpreted to be a collective group.

School board officials say they were in compliance with the legislation – and directors of education at each board submitted compliance letters to the government. Asked whether the ministry was aware of wage increases, a TDSB spokesman said: "All board salaries are posted as part of the annual sunshine list process."

"Like most boards, we understand that we're strapped and we know that we have to adhere to legislation," said John Yan, spokesman for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. "So before we do anything like this, we seek legal opinion … and we acted with the full knowledge of the ministry and with the advice of our legal counsel … Nothing was done without consulting the legal counsel."

"We follow the letter of the law," added Licinio Miguelo of the York Region District School Board. "What the legislation wrote into place would be what we would implement."

Lauren Ramey, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Liz Sandals, said there "may have been some uncertainty" about how the legislation would be implemented. She said the government strengthened the legislation when it extended the wage freeze in 2012, under Bill 55, so it specifically named superintendents.

"The Act was intended to freeze compensation for those BPS [broader public sector] employees who do not bargain collectively, but the interpretation of 'bargain collectively' may not have been clear," she said in an e-mail statement. "It is the Ministry's understanding that many boards obtained outside legal advice indicating that their respective senior management teams … could be defined as bargaining collectively."

She said the ministry is working on a series of audits at a number of school boards regarding the salary legislation.

The legislation – and the clause that allowed for wage hikes to senior staff – came just two years before the government introduced Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that, among other things, imposed pay cuts for teachers through unpaid days, the latest of which is Friday.

Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said the government used a heavy hand on teachers, and needs to do the same with board senior staff.

"They sure came down with a hammer on us. I don't see why they don't use the same authority to look at what has happened across the province and roll those salaries back," he said.

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