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No net zero: Ontario to spend $300M to set up teacher benefit trusts

Members of ETFO protest in Toronto on Oct. 20, 2015. CITYNEWS.

Contract agreements with teachers and education workers that the Ontario Liberal government boasted were “net zero” actually come with an additional $300-million cost.

The money will be used to set up five health, life and dental trusts that will consolidate more than 1,000 current benefit plans.

The government believes it will eventually recover the set-up costs – $175 million to establish the trusts and $125 million to consolidate the plans – due to “long-term efficiencies” and “improved purchasing power.”

The central deals with nine education unions are being made public Wednesday, months after revelations that the government promised $2.5 million to some unions to cover their bargaining costs, which prompted calls for the entire agreements to be released.

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Of that money, $1 million has now been issued to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation after it provided details of its expenses to an independent auditor. Those details, however, have yet to be made public.

Only total amounts spent in seven categories, which add up to just over $1 million, are being released. More than $660,000 was spent on accommodations and travel. More than $141,000 was spent on meals and a further $109,000 was spent on meeting rooms.

The remaining expenses include telephone, video and Internet services, paying supply teachers to cover the classrooms of teachers at the bargaining table and $12,353 in “miscellaneous” expenses.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the French teachers’ union, who were promised $1 million and $500,000 respectively for bargaining costs, will provide their expenses once their local agreements are all reached. The costs were covered because this round of bargaining was the first under a new system and therefore especially lengthy, Education Minister Liz Sandals has said.

The government has insisted that the agreements were all net zero, with a total $402 million in salary increases – a one-per-cent lump sum payment this year and a one-per-cent raise on Sept. 1 with a further 0.5 per cent around January – offset by savings elsewhere.

But net zero doesn’t include the $300-million cost for the benefit trusts.

The savings detailed in the contracts estimate $150 million will be saved by cancelling spending on the final year of a deferred program to help struggling students graduate. It estimates savings of $86 million to $171 million by offering teachers who had banked sick days under previous collective agreements smaller payouts next year instead of receiving more upon retirement.

Delaying teachers and education workers’ salary grid bumps will save an estimated $95 million. Allowing education workers to take up to two unpaid days off on PA days could save up to $14 million, the government estimates, as well as savings of between $7 million and $14 million with changes to sick leave provisions.