SAULT-STE-MARIE, Ont. - Ontario's Liberals won't merge the public and Catholic school systems as other provinces have done if they're re-elected June 12, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Tuesday.
The controversial and politically toxic issue came up after the Liberal candidate in Sudbury said he thinks amalgamation is a great idea.
"It's one of those ways to be more efficient and to save those tax dollars and make sure those dollars get to our children," Andrew Olivier said Monday in an all-candidates debate on CBC radio.
Olivier is entitled to his opinion, but it's not something her government will do, Wynne said from a school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
"It is one of those things that becomes a distraction," said the Liberal leader, who is a former school board trustee and education minister.
"The fact is that we have a lot of work to do in the school system as it exists. There are a lot of improvements that we need to continue to make."
Opening up an unnecessary constitutional debate about merging school systems would get in the way of that work, Wynne added.
"I believe that the school system works the way it exists in Ontario. It's a fundamental part of our history," she said.
"And if we were creating a school system today in Ontario, we'd have a different discussion. But we're not. We have a school system that exists and it works and that's the school system that we'll support."
Neither the Progressive Conservatives nor the New Democrats have any new ideas for education, Wynne said.
Tory Leader Tim Hudak's plan to slash 100,000 public sector jobs, including teachers, will lead to the same strikes and lockouts that former Conservative premier Mike Harris caused with his cuts to education, she added.
"He would in fact turn the clock back 10 years ... and he would once again turn our classrooms and our schools into conflict zones instead of the centres of learning they should be," Wynne said.
The Tories say they will increase class sizes, reduce the number of early childhood educators in full-day kindergarten classes and eliminate 9,700 "non-teaching" positions.
One teachers' union estimates the Tories would kill as many as 19,000 positions in the education sector, including 9,000 teachers.
Wynne later flew to Sudbury and toured the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology with Olivier, who clarified his comments.
"I am not in favour of the amalgamation of school boards," he said. "I am for whatever would be good for Sudbury and whatever would boost education and best for our children would be something that I would look at. And that's it."
All three of the major parties have rejected amalgamation, even though they've all promised to eliminate Ontario's $12.5-billion deficit. The Liberals and NDP say they'd do it in 2017-18, while the Tories say they'd balance the books a year earlier.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has promised to create a $60-million-a-year fund, starting in 2016, to keep schools open after hours for sports clubs and community groups. But she won't merge school boards to save money.
"In fact, the education system is about teaching students and there's going to be the same amount of students no matter what," she said in Fort Erie. "We believe that ... the system that we have now is good for Ontario and we're going to keeps things that way."
The Green Party said it would merge the public and Catholic school boards, saying it could save up to $1.6 billion by reducing administrative duplication and bussing costs and allow for things like bulk buying of supplies.
It said it wants one English and one French public school system, instead of English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic school boards, similar to what Newfoundland and Quebec did after they received exemptions from Article 93 of the Constitution.