TORONTO -- The cash-strapped Liberals struck a new labour agreement with francophone teachers Thursday, after threatening to impose contracts before the school year starts in September.

AEFO, which represents 10,000 teachers, is the third group to break ranks with other unions by accepting a deal with the province.

Education Minister Laurel Broten said the two-year memorandum of understanding is similar to the one reached with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and the Association of Professional Student Services Personnel, which represents workers such as librarians, psychologists and speech pathologists.

The latest agreement freezes pay rates and includes three unpaid days off in the second year, which the government said will help it battle a $15-billion deficit. Teachers, however will still be able to get pay hikes if they move up the salary grid that rewards experience and upgraded qualifications.

But school boards and teachers still need to reach local collective agreements under a government-imposed deadline of Sept. 1.

The Toronto District Catholic School Board has accepted the province's framework agreement, but others are reportedly pushing back. They include school boards in Windsor and London where Premier Dalton McGuinty spent his day, touring schools for the fourth time in a week.

"We're finding it very difficult to think we can get it done in that time period," said Lori Lukinuk of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, which represents 31 English public school boards.

The boards can ask for conciliation and have a third party come in to help reach an agreement. But that can't happen overnight, she said.

"We need some flexibility to be able to do what's best for our own board," she said.

"It takes time to get good language in collective agreements, and now we've got about three weeks left to do that. So I don't see it happening."

Marino Gazzola, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association, said about nine of the 29 Catholic boards have filed for conciliation and others are considering it.

"I think the timeline is very difficult," he said, adding that some boards have a large number of agreements to finalize, depending on the unions involved.

"I think it would be very, very difficult to get it done," Gazzola said.

Some unions that oppose the agreement say their members want to return in the fall, but warn they'll be holding strike votes starting in late August.

If new agreements aren't signed within three weeks, the old contracts would automatically roll over -- something the province simply can't afford, Broten said.

"That means if boards do not find a way to work with us to not have a pay increase roll through on Sept. 1, they will need to find those dollars somewhere else," she said.

"We will not allow them to raise class sizes. We will not allow them not to roll out full-day kindergarten."

McGuinty has delivered an ultimatum, saying he'll recall the legislature this month to get the job done if local agreements aren't signed.

But he shrugged off suggestions that he's dictating -- rather than negotiating -- with teachers.

Elected provincial politicians have accepted a wage freeze and don't have pensions, McGuinty said. It's time for teachers to do their part.

"We think we've struck the appropriate, responsible balance," he said. "And I don't think anybody can question our commitment to education, given the results that we got together."

Any legislation would likely be tabled before the Sept. 6 byelections in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo, which could hand the minority Liberals a majority.

Neither McGuinty nor Broten would say whether it would be a confidence motion, which could trigger a general election barely a year after the last one.

Imposing a deal on teachers and school boards could also trigger a long court battle that will end up costing the province even more, the NDP said.

"We need an agreement that works and we need teachers in the classroom, not a premier who tours empty schools in a desperate bid for votes," New Democrat Jonah Schein said in a statement.

The Progressive Conservatives say the province's agreement doesn't really freeze wages for many teachers because it allows 35 to 40 per cent of teachers to get pay hikes by moving up the salary grid.

If all teachers signed on to the same deal, their total compensation would cost the province $300 million more, said Tory John Yakabuski.

"They're the ones that put themselves into a mess after nine years of spending largesse and acting completely irresponsibly with the public dollars," he said.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, representing 76,000 members, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which has about 60,000 members, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees have all said they won't accept the same deal as the Catholic teachers.

AEFO and OECTA collectively represent about 53,000 teachers.