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Kathleen Wynne speaks during the final debate of the Ontario Liberal leadership race at The Old Mill Inn and Spa in Toronto, Jan. 9, 2013.Tim Fraser

Liberal leadership contender Kathleen Wynne is pledging to replace the centralized bargaining process for Ontario teachers with one that gives local school boards a louder voice.

Teachers unions and school boards have been part of a "very bad" process, one that Ms. Wynne acknowledged she had a hand in refining as a former education minister in Premier Dalton McGuinty's government.

"It was not adequate to the challenge that was confronting us when there were no resources on the table," Ms. Wynne said at an all-candidates debate on Wednesday evening.

But she said restoring labour peace with the province's elementary and secondary teachers is not just about money.

"We are a government that believes in publicly funded education," she said. "We need to stay true to that and understand that that working relationship does not have to do with putting more money in the hands of particular people."

Sandra Pupatello and Gerard Kennedy, two other leadership contenders who are former education ministers, also commented during the debate on the governing Liberals' escalating dispute with teachers.

Government officials are appealing to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to block teachers from staging a one-day protest over contracts imposed on them that freeze their wages and cut their sick day benefits. Many teachers have also stopped coaching sports and other extracurricular activities.

Ms. Pupatello, also perceived as a front-runner in the race to replace Mr. McGuinty, said she would extend an olive branch to teachers, and even promised to invite union leaders to her home to work out their differences.

"When it comes to extra-curricular activities, I'm probably the poster child for why it really matters," Ms. Pupatello said. "It was my student council. It was sports that kept me going to school every day and probably the only reason I graduated from high school."

Mr. Kennedy said the only way the Liberals can restore labour peace in the province is if they are prepared to make changes and acknowledge where "things have gone off the rails" with teachers. He has taken the most teacher friendly stance of his leadership rivals by pledging to tear up their two-year contracts.

Mr. Kennedy said he has stopped to talk to protesters who have gathered outside each one of the five debates organized by the Liberal Party across the province, including the Old Mill Inn in Toronto on Wednesday.

"They feel a lack of respect," he said.

Ms. Wynne said it is absolutely critical to get teachers volunteering their time again for before and after-school activities. But she offered no specific suggestions.

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