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Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty talks to reporters before the start of a meeting with Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his provincial and territorial counterparts, in Ottawa, on Dec. 21, 2015. Doherty says school boards can lay off staff to meet a budget cut, but he admits that may not have clear in a letter sent to board chairs.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty says school boards can lay off staff to meet a budget cut, but he admits that may not have clear in a letter sent to board chairs.

A letter sent last week from deputy education minister Julie MacRae to school division board chairs says the cut is in addition to restraint measures required to meet this year's operating grants.

"The direction of the government, as the funder, is clear, and it is expected that you will engage in the direct negotiations with the bargaining agents of your various employee groups to achieve the required outcomes," wrote MacRae.

"It is critical that this important work commence without delay and be undertaken with necessary urgency."

The letter also says the 3.5 per cent cut has to be made to compensation and can't be achieved through staff reductions, attrition or other cost reductions beyond those required to meet operating grant targets.

Doherty says layoffs would be a last resort, but it is an option.

"They'll have to try and find some savings within their budgets and if layoffs are part of that, then layoffs would part of that. We're not taking that off the table at all," Doherty said Monday at the legislature.

"If it's unclear in the letter, we'll make that clear to the board chairs then."

Saskatchewan school boards are also being told to freeze those compensation cuts for three more years.

The Saskatchewan government is trying to tackle a $1.3-billion deficit. The budget introduced last month plans to get that down to $685-million in the year ahead.

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association has said per student funding on average is down almost $500 a student for the upcoming school year.

Association president Shawn Davidson says boards have already been trying to find savings through things such as joint purchasing and joint transportation.

But that won't make up for the $55-million the province has cut, he says.

"We have member boards out there that are facing five per cent and greater cutbacks to their funding," Davidson said.

"I don't know where they can find five per cent without impacting staff numbers – when you consider that 80 per cent of our expenditures is staff – and also without affecting programming. Programming is what we do. That's our core business.

"We're being put in a very, very difficult position and asking for this 3.5 per cent reduction in compensation package with minimal changes to staff members is not possible."

Premier Brad Wall said in March that the government would cut compensation costs across the public sector by about 3.5 per cent this year without reopening existing agreements.

Unions have said any attempt to reopen existing agreements is a breach of contract.

Doherty says boards should go back and negotiate with employees as to where money can be saved, even though some contracts are already done deals.

"We're not demanding they open the contract. We're asking them to find 3.5 per cent in savings on total compensation through whatever means possible at the negotiating table, that's what we're asking," said Doherty.

This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.

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