The same day Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten was preaching restraint as she imposed a tough new deal on teachers, she quietly renewed a contract with a maintenance workers' union that billed a Toronto school $143 to install a pencil sharpener.
Toronto District School Board officials denounced Ms. Broten's unilateral decision to extend the board's contract with about 900 members of the Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council, saying it means a continuation of costly practices such as a 0.5-per-cent payment premium for jobs by outside contractors, using expensive tradespeople instead of janitors to perform minor tasks and overlapping shift schedules that require the board to provide a vehicle for almost every maintenance worker.
Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod said the governing Liberals are more focused on pleasing their "union friends" than erasing the province's $14-billion deficit. Chris Bolton, chairman of the TDSB, also accused Ms. Broten of playing politics with the "quite bizarre" decision, saying the trades are key donors to the Liberal Party.
"It starts to send the wrong message about public education," he said. "We should be putting as much money as possible into the classroom and this is not helping us."
Ms. Broten said in an e-mail response to The Globe and Mail that she renewed the contract after the TDSB and the skilled trades union failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement by Dec. 31 – the same deadline she had set for teachers under controversial legislation known as Bill 115.
A TDSB official blamed the union for delays. However, union spokesman Ross Parry said the TDSB was "trying to march through negotiations" and decided there was no possibility of a deal before talks even began.
Ms. Broten said her decision to extend the contract does not jeopardize the province's efforts to help the TDSB manage its fiscal woes.
The Ministry of Education sent in a special advisory team to help manage the school board's finances in the face of a growing capital deficit. An independent review by Pricewaterhouse Coopers – which was commissioned by the province – found serious problems with the board's oversight of its finances, including the arrangement with maintenance workers.
"This newly-introduced agreement has no bearing on the board's ability to control spending or to work with the union to manage the cost of various maintenance and repairs," Ms. Broten said.
Mr. Parry denied suggestions that political calculations played a role in Ms. Broten's decision.
"That provision in Bill 115 was applied to everybody equally. It wasn't created specifically just for the skilled trades council."