The province wants to avoid scenes like this teachers' strike in 2002. ((CBC))

The Alberta government and the province's teachers have reached a tentative deal that would prevent strikes or lockouts for five years, and solve part of a massive pension shortfall.

Premier Ed Stelmach announced the complex agreement Thursday that would see the province take over $2.1 billion — about one-third — of the teachers' pension liability.

In exchange, Alberta's 34,000 teachers must agree to a five-year contract. In the deal's first year, salaries would rise by three per cent, the equivalent of what's currently being deducted from paycheques to cover the shortfall.

The deal must be unanimously ratified by the 62 locals of the Alberta Teachers' Association and public school boards across the province by the end of January.

"I think the good news here is the education system in Alberta now for the next five years can concentrate on continuing to improve what is frankly the best in the world," said Education Minister Ron Liepert in Edmonton Thursday.

Liability ballooned to $6.4 billion

Known as an unfunded liability, the shortfall basically resulted from decades of the government and teachers' union not setting aside enough reserve funds to pay for pensions.

'Teachers are getting their debt paid off 52 years early.' — Scott Hennig, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

They began addressing the problem in 1992 but it had ballooned to $6.4 billion. It led to extra deductions of about $2,000 per year from teachers' paycheques to help cover the liability.

Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, called Thursday's announcement "a real positive move" that would mean labour peace in the education sector.

Group calls for public vote

But the Canadian Taxpayers Federation was scathing in its reaction to the deal, criticizing Stelmach for selling out taxpayers.

"Premier Stelmach has offered teachers $2.1 billion of taxpayers' money in exchange for them not going on strike during the upcoming provincial election," Scott Hennig, the group's Alberta director, saidin a news release.

The federation calculated the deal will cost each Albertan $600, and called on the government to hold a plebiscite before signing any new agreement.

"Teachers are getting their debt paid off 52 years early and all taxpayers get is a lousy five years of no strikes."