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TDSB's Donna Quan made the decision to claw back the salaries of 15 senior managers, including her own, after coming under pressure from Education Minister Liz Sandals to take a pay cut.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Superintendents at Canada's largest school board are fighting an order from the education ministry that would force them to pay back any salary increases awarded since a public-sector wage freeze came into force three years ago.

The Toronto District School Board's education director, Donna Quan, made the decision to claw back the salaries of 15 senior managers, including her own, after coming under pressure from Education Minister Liz Sandals to take a pay cut.

School board sources say the Toronto Supervisory Officials' Association, a group that represents about 35 superintendents and executive superintendents, plans to follow several other boards in Ontario in challenging Ms. Sandals's interpretation of the legislation.

In a letter to chairs of the province's 72 public, separate and French-speaking school boards in February, Ms. Sandals declared that the legislation applies to education directors, superintendents and those holding executive positions regardless of job titles.

Several boards have obtained legal opinions that say superintendents should be treated the same as school principals and vice-principals, who are excluded from the freeze.

The wage-freeze legislation explicitly exempts all public-sector workers who bargain collectively. The legal opinions obtained by school boards say superintendents belong in this group because they engage in collective bargaining through their supervisory officials' associations.

Curtis Ennis, a superintendent at the Toronto board and chair of the association, did not return several telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment. But the sources said superintendents are upset about the ministry's order to pay back the salary increases.

"A lot of boards have said this does not apply to us," said one of the sources close to the situation. "That is the avenue the supers want to go. Paying it back is what they're really resisting."

After a regular board meeting that ended just before midnight last Wednesday, Ms. Quan met in private with trustees to discuss the matter, according to the sources.

Ms. Quan asked trustees to approve a plan that would authorize the board to ask senior staff who got salary increases to repay the money voluntarily. However, trustees balked at being asked to assume responsibility for clawing back wages and did not approve the motion, the sources said. Ms. Quan did not respond to an e-mail from The Globe seeking comment.

The Globe and Mail has reported that any boards that increased pay for employees in these positions must present the education ministry with a repayment plan by April 2.

The ministry has not heard of any boards challenging the repayment plan, Nilani Logeswaran, a spokeswoman for Ms. Sandals, said in an e-mail on Sunday.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto board, has said that pay has been "adjusted" for 15 of the 50 members of the senior management team, including superintendents.

The sources said the 15 include senior staff members who got raises last year because they changed jobs or moved up the salary grid.

Ms. Quan agreed to a pay cut in January, just days after Ms. Sandals ordered the school board to reduce her salary from $289,000 to $272,000, which is what her predecessor earned.

During the private meeting, Ms. Quan presented trustees with 85 pages of documents, including a legal opinion on the wage-freeze legislation and correspondence from the education ministry regarding audits of all school boards to determine how many are complying with the freeze.

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