Doug Ford’s Conservative government is leaving children with no choice but to attend schools that are falling into worsening disrepair, a product of underfunding in Ontario’s public education system.

The Ford government slashed $100 million from Ontario public school repair budget after first taking office in 2018. Since then, Ontario’s education sector has been underfunded to the tune of $2.5 billion, with schools left to manage with dwindling repair grants.

In the past few years, multiple schools have been reported as being costlier to fully repair than raze to the ground and rebuild entirely.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has reported a renewal needs backlog of 23,500 repairs that stems back years and continues to grow as they’re deprived of the money needed to significantly reduce the backlog. As of March 2023, the total cost of the repairs was pegged at $4.2 billion.

“We do receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the provincial government each year that are used toward our maintenance renewal backlog,” TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told The Maple. “But, when you consider that we have 583 schools, a majority of them over 60 years old … [the provincial funding] obviously does go a bit of the distance to address those renewal costs, [but] it doesn’t touch $4.2 billion.”

TDSB reports that approximately 75 per cent of the building components in the renewal needs backlog are in critical or poor condition.

A school’s condition is measured by a Facility Condition Index (FCI), a number calculated by dividing a school’s renewal backlog amount by the value it would cost to replace its assets entirely. The higher the FCI, the worse the condition of the school.

Generally, a school’s FCI needs to be under 10 per cent to be considered in “good” condition. Anything above 65 per cent is deemed critical and in need of urgent repair. A school with over 100 per cent FCI is considered costlier to fully repair than raze to the ground and rebuild.

Some of the schools with the highest FCIs in the city include:

Winchester Junior and Senior: 139.42 per cent

Timberbank Junior: 113.69 per cent

Pierre Laporte Middle: 108.17 per cent

Jesse Ketchum Junior and Senior: 108.09 per cent

Kew Beach Junior: 105.48 per cent

Northern Secondary: 96.60 per cent

As more disrepair is added to the renewal backlog, TDSB is neither able to fulfill the standards required to operate comfortably nor close and rebuild the schools due to a provincial moratorium on closures.

“There was a period of time [before the moratorium] where they were more focused on closing the schools,” Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), told The Maple.

The workers Walton represents include TDSB-employed tradespeople who tackle items on the board’s renewal backlog.

“The school boards in general were not repairing these schools, because if they didn't, and the disrepair became so great, then the government would give them funds to build a new school.”

With the moratorium in place, Walton said, “now we're not [closing schools]. We're just left with a bunch of buildings that have not been kept up.”

Still, Walton supports the moratorium. “When you know that if your school gets into enough disrepair, you're going to be getting an injection of funds to build a whole new school, it just creates a perfect storm of ugliness.”

The impact of the unaddressed repairs is felt by students and staff alike, as they must, for example, sometimes sit in classrooms without air conditioning in the middle of the summer. TDSB dedicates its funds to higher priority projects such as heating systems, electrical panels and leaking roofs.

“You do essentially have to triage the different repair and maintenance requests that we receive,” said Bird. “Health and safety is always first, and then once those are addressed, we use the funding leftover to then move forward with other things. Whether it be the replacement of boilers, window projects, flooring — a whole host of different projects.”

A school’s FCI doesn’t determine where provincial funding is used. Health and safety repairs may not be listed on a school’s FCI directory. However, there is no official record of health and safety threats and their repair processes, other than what’s included on a school’s FCI.

Walton questions the reasoning behind FCI directories.

She explained that prior to the moratorium on school closures, a school’s high FCI would function as an appeal to the public, because a high FCI percentage could help sell the idea of a school closure.

“What would happen prior to the moratorium is we would see schools suddenly [increase] in FCI,” she said. “We knew that those schools would be coming up for closure. It just made a better story to the public if there was a [higher] number.”

The Repair Process

In the process of a school repair, caretaking staff typically send a maintenance request to the school board, which employs tradespeople who are responsible for special repairs.

“Service staff review that request and then determine ‘yes, that’s a health and safety issue, we have to do that now,’ or ‘[we can] essentially take more time to complete that one,’” Bird explained, noting that staff judgement ultimately determines where resources are allocated.

Bird said that not all urgent repairs can be covered by the provincial funding. “Certainly there are items on those lists right now, even some marked ‘urgent,’ that are not being addressed because we just don't have the funding to address them.”

While TDSB employs tradespeople responsible for specialized repairs, insufficient provincial funding means their skills are underused. Walton explained that salary disparities between public and private sector tradespeople have caused public workers to leave en masse for other opportunities, leading to an understaffed team that isn’t always available for the many important repairs needed at schools around the city.

Walton maintained that it’s overall more cost-effective to ensure the work stays in house, as long as it’s consistent. She advocates for a repair protocol that is focused on ongoing, regular maintenance, rather than just “big ticket” items. She emphasized the importance of maintenance over new development.

“If you do not continue to do the constant upkeep of your home, which will cost minimal dollars, you're going to get into a situation where you have to pay big money, because now it’s going to become a more structural [issue],” Walton explained. “Why haven't we been doing that type of regular maintenance, which does not require a contracting firm, and investing in people in our schools rather than putting this money out?”

According to Walton, repairs are categorized as either “capital” or “ongoing.” Ongoing repairs are smaller, one-off jobs that don’t require a large team or budget to complete, like a broken floor tile. On the other hand, capital repairs are either one “big-ticket” item or a collection of smaller repairs.

“Often [school boards] would get more money if it was a capital repair, versus ongoing repairs. They would wait, then put out a tender to get a company to come in and fix it,” said Walton.

As a result, school boards have an incentive to sit on smaller issues of maintenance until they’re able to contract them out.

Walton stressed that the burden of responsibility primarily falls on the provincial government.

“Since 1998, and the amalgamation of the Toronto District School Board, which made it the largest school board in the country, there has been consistent underfunding from both Liberal and Conservative governments, which, really, puts the school board in a situation of ‘what do we spend our money on?’”

Safety measures taken by the province and TDSB during the COVID-19 pandemic proved the benefit of funding for more regular repairs.

“During the [pandemic], a lot of preventative maintenance work was actually getting done to get where we needed to be,” said Walton. “Then that fell off again once we’d lifted all the priorities and the COVID funding was gone.”

The Unaddressed Repairs

What are some of the maintenance items that aren’t getting addressed? Below are photos of some examples submitted anonymously by TDSB employees to The Maple.

A picture containing green, waste container, indoor, wall

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Broken HVAC at Wedgewood Junior. Contributed photo.

Wedgewood Junior, a school with an FCI of 63.49 per cent, has a broken HVAC. This means unregulated air quality and no ventilation for the entire school. It’s listed as an “urgent” repair in the school’s directory.

A picture containing house, wall, window, composite material

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Broken radiator and pipe and Wedgewood. Contributed photo.

The same goes for the school’s broken radiator and pipe. The classroom is forced to continue functioning since there isn’t enough space to relocate students.

A TDSB employee who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their job told The Maple that if these items are still broken come the fall, the classroom’s students will have to go without heat for hours a day.

“This school is four hallways and a playground. If something is broken, it’s everyone’s problem. There isn’t space to move students around,” the employee told The Maple. “Luckily, it’s summertime. But [the broken radiator] needs to be fixed before the fall.”

A close-up of a door

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Broken porcelain tile at Wedgewood Junior. Contributed photo.

Broken floors are listed as “vinyl renewal” under the school’s FCI, and are not considered an urgent repair. But by the TDSB’s health and safety standards, broken tiling constitutes a tripping hazard to students.

A door handle on a door

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A broken door at Earl Haig Secondary School. Contributed photo.

According to Laura Walton, a broken door handle wouldn’t be considered urgent enough to initiate a work order.

“Rather than going and fixing the door in the classroom that isn't working properly, they would wait until there [were] several doors, or several things that needed to be fixed,” she explained. “Then they would bring in [tradespeople], which is really disappointing.”

Water Supply

Bird said that repairs like replacing plumbing fixtures and asbestos remediation come with “significant challenges, [because] you’re dealing with a building that could be, in some cases, over 100 years old.”

Lead concentration within Ontario schools’ water is also an issue, exacerbated by a lack of funding to renew antiquated pipes and plumbing.

The province’s guideline limit of lead concentration in drinking water is 10 micrograms per litre (ug/L), which is twice the federal government’s maximum allowance of 5 ug/L.

The federal limit was decided by Health Canada in 2019. Without the funding to replace plumbing fixtures, the Ontario Education Ministry’s response is to put schools with high lead concentrations on a daily flush, a low-cost method found to be inconsistent and limited in its long-term effectiveness.

Northern Secondary, a school with nearly 2,000 students, reports high levels of lead concentration in both standing and flushed samples of multiple fixtures.

Park Lane, John Fisher, Sir William Osler and Jesse Ketchum Junior and Senior schools all report lead concentration levels significantly higher than both the provincial and federal guidelines.

In 2019, the Ford government admitted responsibility in needing to address this issue, after an investigation revealed dangerous amounts of lead in school water province-wide.

Funding Challenges

Schools in most Ontario cities can take advantage of Education Development Charges (EDCs), which are property taxes from land development. That isn’t the case for the TDSB.

“We do not qualify for Educational Development Charges due to surplus space, which puts us at a disadvantage compared to other Ontario school boards,” TDSB chair Rachel Chernos Lin said in a statement to The Maple.

Currently, revenue collected from EDCs can only be used to purchase land for new school sites, “not to support the cost of building new schools or renovating existing ones.” TDSB wants these restrictions, along with the eligibility criteria, to change.

“What we've asked is not only the ability to collect [EDCs], but then use them towards our maintenance renewal backlog, which just continues to grow each and every year,” Bird explained.

TDSB estimates the total amount lost from its ineligibility for EDCs to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Its inability to raise funds this way stems from regulations introduced by Conservative premier Mike Harris in the 1990s.

The school board unsuccessfully challenged the EDC regulations in March 2021. The Building Industry and Land Development Association acted as an intervenor in the case on the government's side.

Whatever the solution to funding school repairs, Walton believes that school facilities should ultimately serve the community interest.

“When school's done, we have karate groups coming in and soccer groups coming in and faith groups coming in. That's really what a school should be. The heart of the community and everybody recognizing it as a public service.”

Haaris Kafeel is a freelance writer and community advocate based in Ontario.

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