Crumbling public school facilities need remediation

Last month, I attended a Toronto District School Board presentation about the Board's operating budget for 2014-2015. It was quite telling. The budget is estimated to be $3 billion. For the first time in over a decade, the operating budget deficit was at its lowest: $12.4 million. TDSB staff expressed confidence that they can find savings to balance the shortfall.

Thinking about the school days of my youth brings back a flood of memories. I remember it as a place where I could get lost in my imagination at recess and learn hard lessons in and out of the classroom. School is a place students are supposed to do one thing and do it well: learn. To do this, however, there must be a safe, secure and inviting environment. When I attended school, I felt, for the most part, secure and safe, and that it was full of ways to become engaged.

Last month, I attended a Toronto District School Board presentation about the Board's operating budget for 2014-2015. It was quite telling. The budget is estimated to be $3 billion. For the first time in over a decade, the operating budget deficit was at its lowest: $12.4 million. TDSB staff expressed confidence that they can find savings to balance the shortfall.

Although the TDSB is the largest school board in Canada, over half of its students consider English a second language, the Board is not provided with the provincial government support needed to allow young people to excel to their full potential. In terms of funding per student, the TDSB is treated like any other school board in the province -- with some minor exceptions in regards to "grants for student needs," which does not even come close to addressing fully some of the needs in our schools.

Perhaps what should be of even greater concern to us is the backlog of capital expenses at the TDSB. The Ontario government's own audit has shown that there are 202 TDSB schools in critical condition -- nearly half of the TDSB's 588 operating schools. Forty-one of these schools need extensive renovations at a total cost of $3.2 billion. How do we start to address this issue -- and soon?

The Ontario government does have a significant deficit right now and as a homeowner and taxpayer, I am not advocating for an increase in property taxes to cover the massive cost of school repairs. However, we do have some options at our disposal.

For example, the provincial government levies Education Development Charges (EDCs) throughout Ontario to help cover the cost of new sites that result from population growth and municipal expansion. EDCs are funds that a developer is charged for every new residential unit sold. As of 2014, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) collects $1303.00 for each residential unit and $0.94 per square foot of non-residential space. 

At present, EDCs cannot be used by school boards to fund capital repairs -- which is what the TDSB desperately needs. The provincial government sets the policy surrounding EDCs, a change to this policy must therefore come from the provincial government, and would go a long way towards addressing maintenance backlog.

At this point, the TDSB does not qualify for EDCs given the Board's excess space across the system. As written in the TDSB’s Financial Facts and Expenditure Trends report “City of Toronto planning information indicates that there are applications for an additional 277,000 new residential units in 2014. Based in the current TCDSB’s EDC rate, if the TDSB was treated equally it is estimated that this projected growth would generate nearly $300 million of much needed revenue to meet the capital needs of the board.”

The EDCs that could be raised from these units, approximately $360 million, could go directly to offsetting the $3.2 billion maintenance backlog. It would be a reliable funding stream that would repair our schools as needed year after year.

Indisputably, these repairs are necessary to provide a safe and sound environment now and also to support future growth. Although it is a common belief that condo living does not support family life, recent studies, as shown by TDSB staff, reveal that families are indeed being raised in condos. This reality creates a need for the schools that already exist to be maintained because these new residential developments will bring children. If the community cannot handle the rapid influx of students, then these children will be bussed out of their communities to the nearest schools with capacity. To avoid such a scenario, we should be repairing the older infrastructure that is already here -- some of it hundreds of years old -- in order to ensure that facilities provide modern water systems, sound systems, and safe and secure environments.

Now that the need is clear, the hurdle we face is convincing the provincial government to address this situation and to rework the legislation surrounding EDCs. The needs of the TDSB are different from other school boards owing to significant demographic and geographic differences: 54% of people in Toronto are visible minorities, and our geography is vastly different from other school boards when compared, for example, to Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Ottawa. 

As a kid, the least of my worries was the structural integrity, or soundness, of the school I attended. That was something that the people in charge ensured. Such structurally sound learning environments are not the case within the TDSB today. Not only are the communities we live in affected by this situation, directly and indirectly, but so, too, are property values negatively affected by decaying schools.

Together, we can help bring forth real change to this very important issue by calling your provincial representative, Minister of Education and The Premier’s Office.