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NEWS (SEPTEMBER 2016): Provincial investment falls short

September 16th, 2016 · No Comments

TDSB repair backlog reflects critical state of infrastructure

By Annemarie Brissenden

With both the federal and provincial governments making significant investments in public infrastructure, the Ministry of Education’s release of information detailing the maintenance backlog in Ontario raises a serious question: are we doing all that we can to maintain our buildings once they are built? The evidence suggests that we are not, and that our penchant for funding new infrastructure while ignoring our existing capital assets is ringing in a very high cost.

Consider that of the nine Ward 10 elementary schools that fall in the Gleaner’s coverage area, six are in critical condition, two are in poor condition, and only one is in even fair condition. All three secondary schools (Central Technical School, Harbord Collegiate Institute, and West End Alternative School) are at the critical level. Many of the elementary school buildings date to the 1950s and 1960s, while both Central Tech and Harbord are over 100 years old.

Reflecting data from 2011 to 2015, a school’s individual FCI is a percentage that is calculated by dividing the total cost of repairs by the cost of rebuilding the school. The higher the FCI, the more repairs the school requires. Schools with an FCI of 65 or greater are considered to be in critical condition.

“Increasingly Ontario parents are noticing the state of disrepair and thinking about the impact on their children”—Krysta Wylie, co-founder, Fix our Schools

While both the Ministry of Education and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) stress that such a rating does not mean a school is unsafe for students, it is troubling to wade through the long catalog of repairs, which includes everything from roofing and mechanical work to field restoration, listed starkly in black and white.

“Increasingly Ontario parents are noticing the state of disrepair and thinking about the impact on their children,” said Krista Wylie. She’s a co-founder of Fix our Schools, which was started 25 years ago by TDSB parents whose children all attended old schools with maintenance backlogs.

In June, the province announced it would increase those resources and address the backlog by spending an additional $1.1 billion (on top of a previously announced $1.5 billion) over the next two years on repairing schools throughout Ontario.

In an email, a ministry spokesperson characterized it as a “historic investment” representing “the government’s largest ever investment in school renewal”. It will enable “school boards to repair roofs, update HVAC units, and modernize electrical and plumbing systems”.

“Our government is doing its part to address this issue positively,” said Han Dong (MPP, Trinity-Spadina), whose children attend a local public school. He added that nine schools in his riding, including Harbord and Central Tech, will be getting funds for repairs.

Of the total $2.6 billion announced by the province, though, just under $580 million will be directed to TDSB schools, which collectively have a repair backlog that amounts to $3.6 billion.

“We’re a way off from addressing the backlog,” noted Wylie.

For Ausma Malik (TDSB Ward 10, Trinity-Spadina) it’s a two-fold problem: in addition to receiving adequate resources to make necessary repairs, the board needs “consistent and predictable funding” to maintain its buildings in a state of good repair.

That should amount to $1.4 billion a year, according to the 2015 annual report by the auditor general, who reported that “actual annual funding on a school year basis over the last five years is $150 million a year, increasing to $250 million.”

Wylie believes “the province has done a great job of holding the school board accountable” for budget shortfalls leading to things like a maintenance backlog, even though, in actual fact, it holds all the power.

“The province has relied on ‘right-sizing’ the school system, and painted that as a reason for disrepair,” explained Wylie.

Indeed, Dong points to right-sizing — consolidating and selling schools that are under-capacity and using the proceeds to fund capital repairs, such as in the recently announced merger of the Catholic school board’s St. Raymond and St. Bruno schools — as a way to manage the repair backlog effectively.

“Part of the solution is to look at how we reallocate resources,” said the local MPP. “Schools and day care spaces have to be adjusted given population shift.”

Yet, in a city where green space is at a premium and public schools are as much a hub for recreation as they are for learning, closing schools, even those with low enrolment, is very difficult. Communities push back, supported by councillors who are keen to keep public buildings in public hands. Add this to the unlikely prospect of getting market value for its sites, and it becomes clear why the TDSB often continues to operate schools that are under capacity, even at huge expense.

There’s also the matter of the age of the bulk of its buildings.

While the average age of schools in the province is 38, Toronto’s schools average out at 60 years, with some crumbling in at 100. Such older buildings, the ones that require the most repair and maintenance, have suffered the most from years of chronic underfunding.

As the auditor general’s report highlights, it’s a state of affairs that reflects the province infrastructure pool as a whole. As the second-largest item on Ontario’s statement of financial position, the province’s tangible capital assets are decidedly aging ones. And, so far, little is being done to ensure this portfolio will provide a solid foundation well into the future.

“The government plans to devote two-thirds of its infrastructure spending over the next 10 years to building new assets and one-third to maintaining and renewing existing properties — even though its own analysis indicated it should be the other way around,” wrote the auditor general in her report.

Or as Wylie put it, “it’s more sexy politically for the provincial government to spend money on programs that are way more interesting than a leaky roof.”



FROM THE ARCHIVES: A look back at one attempt to lease a local school (September 2016)

NEWS: A $9.4-million school with a view (June 2016)



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