The use of sick days is up substantially at Ontario school boards, including among teachers and other staff, such as custodians, which is "causing financial and resource allocation pressures," Ontario's auditor general said Wednesday in her annual report.

Looking at data from more than 50 school boards, average employee sick days shot up by 29 per cent, from nine to 11.6 days per employee, over a five-year period ending in August 2016, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said.

Put in financial terms, overall sick leave that was paid as a percentage of payroll went up from an average of 4.2 per cent in the 2011-12 school year to 5.3 per cent in the 2015-16 school year, a 25 per cent increase, the audit noted.

Auditors visited four boards – Toronto Catholic, Hamilton-Wentworth, Halton Catholic, and Hastings and Prince Edward – and found that in three of four of them, salary costs for sick days went up by 32 per cent, from $32.3 million in 2011-12 to $42.7 million in 2015-16. Average sick days used over the same period ranged from 8.4 days to 13.4 days, according to the audit.

The document notes that in the study of more than 50 boards, sick days increased province-wide in each employee group, with custodians and maintenance employees, as well as educational assistants, having the highest average in 2015-16 at more than 16 days.

Educational assistants and early childhood educators had the largest increase in the average number of sick days at 37 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively.

As for teachers:

  • The number of sick days taken by secondary teachers rose to 9.6 days annually from 7.66, a 26 per cent increase. The number of sick days taken by elementary teachers rose to 11.3 days annually from 8.8 days, a 29 per cent increase. 

As a result of the increase in sick day use, the boards experienced "added financial pressures," Lysyk wrote.

"The direct costs of absenteeism are defined as the direct salary costs of employees off sick and the cost of paying for replacement workers, such as substitute teachers," the audit reads.

"These costs result in less funds being available for student services."

The audit noted that changes to the sick leave plan in the education sector after 2012  — which ended the ability to bank unused sick days and have them paid out at retirement — is one of the factors contributing to the increase.

After the audit was tabled in the legislature, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter was pressed by reporters about whether it was a mistake to end the banking of sick days. She replied that the move resulted in savings to the education system, with her spokesperson later noting in an email to CBC Toronto that the savings top $1 billion annually.

Hunter would not directly say whether sick calls eat into those savings, instead deferring to school boards to manage staff attendance.

"School boards have the responsibility to oversee attendance management and that is something that is expected of school boards," Hunter told reporters at Queen's Park. "We do encourage them to have programs in place to properly manage and monitor that."

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said it's up to school boards to manage staff attendance, and said ending the banking of sick days saves $1 billion annually. (CBC)

Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carlton) said "if there has been an abuse" that's been identified by the auditor general, it's up to the minister to bring in a policy to curb that behaviour.

Asked by reporters whether the Liberals "screwed up" by ending the banking of sick days, MacLeod replied:

"I'm not sure. It would be an interesting question to ask the auditor general and perhaps in a follow-up report she will look at that."

Heather Irwin, a spokesperson for the ministry, said staff are "committed to supporting and encouraging school boards in enhancing their staff well-being and practices that support consistent staff attendance."

Meanwhile, the audit also found long wait lists at the four boards visited of students waiting to be assessed or helped by psychologists, and speech and language specialists. At three of four boards, 24 per cent of students on a waiting list for psychological services had been waiting for more than a year.

The audit also found that none of the four boards auditors visited completed the two mandatory appraisals for all new teachers within 12 months of being hired, which is required by the Education Act. Completion rates ranged from 64 per cent to 89 per cent, according to the audit.

Board used funds for at-risk students to cover shortfalls

The audit also looked at how boards use funding from the Ministry of Education.

Looking at the four boards auditors visited, the report noted that they generally used funds that are restricted by legislation for their intended purposes. However, money distributed to the boards that was for specific purposes was sometimes used for other purposes, the audit found.

One board, for example, spent half of the $46.5 million it received for at-risk students to cover shortfalls in teacher salaries and special education. Another board spent 42 per cent of the $23.9 million it received for English as a second language and English literacy in 2015-16 on other initiatives.

In a separate section, the audit noted that the last independent review of the Ministry of Education's funding formula for school boards was 15 years ago. At that time, 2002, a task force recommended that the ministry conduct an annual review of the benchmarks in the funding formula and update them accordingly. The task force also recommended that the ministry conduct a more comprehensive review every five years.

"Fifteen years later, the ministry has not commissioned another independent review of the funding formula," a briefing note accompanying the audit said.

The ministry gives boards complete discretion when allocating non-restricted funding and does not require them to report on how it is used. That means the ministry can't get an adequate picture of whether the way boards allocate funds is actually meeting students' needs, the briefing note said.

On school board funding, the audit also found:

  • Half of the annual restricted special education funding is allocated based on a board's average daily enrolment for all students, rather than the number of actual students in special education programs. If the boards did allocate funds based on the students actually enrolled in these programs, about $111 million would have been spent differently.
  • The Ministry does not compare and analyze school boards' expenses on a per-student or per-school basis. Such analyses could help the Ministry better understand how boards are operating, the audit noted, and help boards make better funding decisions.