Ontario’s high school teachers say Thursday’s provincial budget is setting the stage for “unnecessary conflict” because the Liberals have “unilaterally extended” a wage cut imposed in 2013, which will now go beyond the agreed two-year term.

Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, lobbed the criticism after the provincial government delivered a budget that holds course on several previous promises, but has nearly no new education spending beyond what had previously been announced.

The budget pledges to follow through with key policies, including the complete roll-out of full-day kindergarten to 265,000 children across the province by September, and will maintain the roughly $1.8-billion that it spends annually on education infrastructure for a decade. And though the budget does not contain cuts, a lack of new funding in the budget left Mr. Elliott dissatisfied before the start of summer bargaining.

“Our members have more than done their part,” he said, “but this government persists in treating public education workers in Ontario as easy targets for an agenda of restraint that even the government itself is no longer comfortable acknowledging.”

Education Minister Liz Sandals said it is standard practice that when collective agreements are set to expire, as the teachers’ deal will in September, provisions are “rolled forward.” She also said the province’s relationships with teachers’ unions and school boards has improved, despite the “rhetoric.”

“The government never announces what the deal’s going to be before you negotiate it,” she said.

The budget renews prior promises to fund infrastructure and equipment, including $150-million over three years for technology and learning tools such as new digital tablets, and $750-million over four years to consolidate and retrofit underused schools. And it pledges $11-billion in capital grants to school boards over the next decade, which would roughly sustain the government’s substantial investments in infrastructure over the last decade – spending Ms. Sandals acknowledged “may not sound very sexy,” but is necessary to “replace the leaky windows and fix the leaky roofs” of aging postwar school buildings.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, welcomed the $11-billion pledge, saying it “will help address the backlog in school renewal in the education sector and is a much-needed investment in better environments for students.”

The budget also contained just one new promise to universities and colleges: an extra $500-million over a decade for deferred maintenance on campuses, which Ontario’s Auditor-General has identified as “a very serious, even critical issue,” said Seneca College president David Agnew. “This isn’t about making campuses beautiful; it’s about making them safe,” he said., calling the investment “very positive.”

Brad Duguid, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, was busy in the months leading up to the budget. He promised $42-million to create a new hub for online learning and course development, shared by the province’s colleges and universities, and further funding to set up a database that will show students which schools recognize the credits they have earned to facilitate easier transfers between institutions.

The government will also continue its flagship “30 per cent off Ontario tuition” grant that gives many students a rebate of up to $1,600 on university programs or $730 for college programs.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, May. 01 2014, 11:15 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, May. 01 2014, 11:17 PM EDT