Its 588 schools require $3.4 billion in repairs.
Two years ago, when Krista Wylie’s two children were attending an aging school in Toronto’s west end, she banded together with other parents in the neighbourhood who were concerned about the condition of their kids’ schools.
They started meeting regularly, calling themselves the Mary Poppins group. “We thought, naively, all we needed to do was spit spot, let the powers that be know that this is an issue, and surely, the money needed would be released,” Wylie says.
The group soon realized the problem wasn’t limited to the Toronto District School Board. Every school board in the province had a repair backlog. So they expanded their campaign and changed their name to Fix Our Schools.
The repair backlog within the TDSB has only grown since then, now sitting at $3.4 billion.
In August, the school board released the renewal needs backlog, which details the repairs required at each of its 588 schools. It did so just before the Ontario Ministry of Education released its Facility Condition Index, which gives each school in the province a rating based its condition.
The ministry also revealed schools across the province need a total of $15 billion in repairs.
The TDSB’s database is more specific; parents can search their child’s school and see needed repairs itemized. Some needs are visible, such as peeling paint or leaks in the ceiling, while others, like boilers, pipes, and sprinkler systems, are not.
“We did this to give parents and students an idea of what that [$3.4-billion repair backlog] really looks like at an individual school level,” says TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird.
None of the lacking repairs poses health or safety risks, he stresses. Emergency jobs—such as new windows or a new heating system in the winter when the old one breaks down—are completed immediately.
The repairs in the backlog are rated urgent, high, medium, or low. For example, some older schools have boilers that, while still functioning, have surpassed their life expectancy.
“It’s a combination of Band-Aid solutions and proper maintenance,” Bird says. “But eventually they will need replacing.”
School boards are funded through the provincial government, and in recent years, those funds have only stretched far enough to cover emergency repairs, Bird says.
That means that other projects and upgrades don’t get completed, year after year.
This summer, the provincial government announced $1.1 billion in additional funding for Ontario schools.
“That will allow us to start chipping away more at that backlog, but what we’ve been saying is that we really do need consistent and predictable funding going forward,” Bird says. “Without that, the TDSB repair backlog could grow to approximately $4.7 billion in 2018. So that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Wylie is also pleased by the additional funding offered this year, but she and Fix Our Schools’ parents believe there is much work to be done to address the backlog.
The TDSB has been painted for years as a “dysfunctional behemoth,” she says, when “there’s been such scarcity given to school boards in this province that it’s literally impossible for them to be ‘efficient’ with that money.”
According to Wylie, up until two years ago, the funds given to the TDSB by the province were equivalent to $2.26 for every $100 of disrepair on its books.
“It’s a pretty simple issue,” she says. “It doesn’t require any shift in deeply held values. There are way more complicated issues in the world. All this issue requires is money, really, to fix the problem.”
There are other funding options out there: educational development charges, an increase in taxes—“that’s never popular,” she says—or the province issuing bonds and taking on debt.
“None are easy,” Wylie says. “I guess it’s a question of whether two million children in the province deserve it.”
The lack of air conditioning in many of Toronto’s schools came up this month as students headed back to the classroom during a heat wave. Within the TDSB, 120 schools have full-facility air conditioning. The rest either have partial A/C or none at all.
This isn’t included in the backlog; because air conditioning is non-existent in some schools, it’s not considered a repair. Bird is frank: “While we do realize that it can be very hot sometimes, especially at the end of June and beginning of September, unfortunately, when we have a $3.4-billion repair backlog, air conditioning is just not possible to offer at all of our schools.”