TORONTO -- As protesters marched outside and word came down of two looming work stoppages at Ontario public schools, the seven candidates vying to be the next leader of the provincial Liberal party squared off at their last debate Wednesday night.

While the questions focused on three main areas -- growth in Toronto, the economy and education -- it was the latter that was most prescient amid worsening tensions between the Liberal government and the province’s teachers.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has announced a one-day job action for Friday, while bargaining unit leaders at the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) voted in favour of a one-day protest on Jan. 16 if Bill 115 is not repealed by then.

The moves follow decisions by teachers to return to work, but stay away from extracurricular activities.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello, who left politics more than a year ago for the private sector, urged the teachers to stand down, calling herself “the poster child” for why extracurricular activities matter in schools.

Student council and sports were “probably the only reason I graduated from high school,” Pupatello told the hundreds of party members who attended the fifth and final debate.

MPP Kathleen Wynne (Don Valley West) said extracurricular activities are “critical to your kids’ experience at school.”

Nearly all the candidates professed their desire to sit down with union leaders very soon after winning the leadership.

“We need our teachers on the inside, not the outside,” Eric Hoskins (MPP for St. Paul’s) said, referencing the more than 100 protesters outside the debate venue.

Glen Murray (Toronto Centre) cautioned, though, that Ontario’s “fiscal problem isn’t going away,” and noted that teachers’ contracts factor into how the province gets its $14 billion deficit under control.

“You can’t keep a wage freeze forever,” Murray said.

As the candidates were in Toronto for their final debate, the first segment of questions dealt with the city, including economic growth and housing.

Former MP and MPP Gerard Kennedy echoed the sentiments of other candidates when he said he is “worried about all those people downtown,” as the city’s condo boom builds a concrete jungle with less focus on green space and creating liveable neighbourhoods.

The candidates blamed the city’s crumbling infrastructure for everything from traffic jams to difficulties attracting investment in the city, which compelled MP Harinder Takhar (Mississauga-Erindale) to repeat his calls for government bonds devoted entirely to raising money for infrastructure projects.

While most of the candidates spoke of the urgency with which the next premier needs to address infrastructure, they also discussed affordable housing.

“Every single Ontarian should have a key in their pocket to a safe place to live,” Murray said before suggesting that the ongoing condominium boom in the city be used to create more affordable housing units.

Wynne went further, saying that while affordable housing is a “critically important” part of poverty reduction, supports must be in place for those who need housing assistance because of health problems, mental illness and other challenges.

MP Charles Sousa (Missisauga South) touted taking advantage of “the vibrancy that makes Toronto a colourful place to live,” echoing Pupatello and Wynne with calls for boosting the city’s arts-and-culture scene as a way to foster job growth.

The seven candidates are: Harinder Takhar, Sandra Pupatello, Charles Sousa, Gerard Kennedy, Eric Hoskins, Glen Murray and Kathleen Wynne. A winner will be chosen at a leadership convention scheduled for Jan. 25 to 27 at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.