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Fred Hahn. President of CUPE Ontario, speaks to the media following Finance Minister Dwight Duncan's announcement that public sector executives will have their salaries capped at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, September 20, 2012.Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

Ontario school board officials are frustrated with a tentative agreement struck between the province and 55,000 school support staff that limits their power to lay off workers if there are funding shortfalls.

The province found common ground with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents custodians, educational assistants, library technicians, administrative staff, early childhood educators and food service workers, before a Dec. 31 deadline for bargaining. If a deal hadn't been reached, the government would have imposed a contract under Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that dictates the terms of the contract and restricts the ability to strike. Public-school teachers had the contract imposed on them last week after both sides failed to reach an agreement.

The tentative contract with CUPE, which still needs to be ratified, provides support staff with job security "except in cases of a catastrophic or unforeseeable event or circumstance" or in the event of declining enrolment.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said such a provision, which school board officials were against, limits a board's ability to make staffing decisions when it looks to balance its budget. Toronto, which has been under pressure to get its finances in order, will be particularly hard-hit, he said.

"When you don't involve school boards in making decisions, you end up in a rush to have an agreement, and therefore you put things on the table that are impractical and imperfect," Mr. Barrett said. "Once you start to introduce job security and take away the flexibility of boards, then what you're doing is you're taking options off the table."

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, said the only way for his members to preserve these support services for students is to include job security in their two-year contract.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Laurel Broten said the agreement with CUPE still gives school boards some flexibility in staffing levels in cases such as declining enrolment.

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