Billions needed to fix crumbling Toronto schools

By Cristina Howorun

Leaky roofs, cracked foundation, broken windows and heaters that don’t always work – that’s the learning environment for much of Ontario’s student population. Its part of a staggering repair backlog that, according to data from the Ministry of Education, will cost $16-billion to repair if done today.

It’s a number that’s likely to grow before it diminishes.

“The majority of repair work that is done is reactive,” explains Krista Wylie, co-founder of Fix Our Schools. “We don’t fix a roof until its actually leaking on top of children’s heads and so maybe its damaged a whole classroom of computers, so it ends up being more expensive.”

Wylie co-founded the group back in 2014, after learning that her son was wearing a winter coat and hat in the classroom.

“They were doing a science experiment and measuring temperatures of the hallways and classrooms and that’s when I found out his classroom was 12 degrees,” she explains. She started investigating and realized how broken Ontario – and Toronto’s – schools truly are.

Toronto schools – including the public, Catholic, French and French Catholic boards – need about $4.7-billion in repairs.

The Toronto District School Board has a repair list of 23,000 items that need tending to, ranging from major structural repairs to replacing toilets and plumbing fixtures to fixing broken lockers.

“It’s a huge issue for students and staff who work in these schools. It can manifest itself in very visible ways, like classroom temperatures,” Wylie explains. “It can also manifest in invisible disrepair; mold that we don’t know about. Fire suppression systems that could fail in the case of an actual fire if not kept in a state of good repair.”

The Toronto District School Board stresses that it places a priority on student and staff safety but it simply can’t keep up with the backlog of repairs.

“Our schools are old, they are in need of repair. Most of our schools are over 60 years old and we don’t have funding to keep them up to date,” TDSB Chair Robin Pilkey tells CityNews. “We concentrate on student safety and workplace safety and then we would be doing emergency-type repairs.”

The TDSB has a repair backlog with an estimated price tag of $3.9-billion. That means schools like Jarvis Collegiate Institute have 59 items in need of repair, 15 of which are marked as “urgent” and with an estimated total price tag of $29-million. There are dozens of schools, like Ryerson Community School or Deer Park Junior and Senior Public School where the cost of repairs exceeds the cost of actually building a similar school.

“There are situations where we do get capital funds to rebuild. They’re few and far between,” explains Pilkey.

“Even though some of the schools could possibly be replaced many people in those neighbourhoods have attachments to those schools. You look at the situation with York Memorial that just unfortunately burned down,” she explains. “It’s a lot more than a money question in many cases.”

But money is the biggest issue.

Last year, TDSB received just under $300-million to tackle some of those problems, although $25-million of those funds came through the now-cancelled Green Gas Reduction Fund. Provincial funding levels on a board-by-board basis for repairs has not yet been announced but April’s budget allocated $1.4-billion for repairs across the province. That’s the same as the previous government, without the $100-million Green Gas Reduction Fund.

“When Mike Harris handed over the reigns of the province to the Liberals 15 years ago, disrepair sat at about $5-billion,” Wylie says. “Fifteen years later – without adequate funding – that number tripled to $15.9-billion.”

She points out that for years school repair funds were limited to about $150-million across the province. That changed in 2016 when the Liberals boosted the budget ten-fold.

“Quite frankly we are cleaning up a mess that we inherited, the former Liberal administration totally ignored school repairs and they totally were irresponsible,” Education Minister Lisa Thompson tells CityNews.

“That’s why we invested this past school year $1.4-billion in school repairs and we’re committed to another $1.4-billion in repairs. The fact of the matter is, over the next 10 years, we’re investing 13 billion dollars in repairs as well as capital.”

But Wylie says that’s just a drop in the bucket.

“To really take care of this backlog …we would need from the province an additional $1.6-billion per year, for the next seven years, and then we would be able to eliminate the repair backlog. So that’s a lot of money – that’s double what we’re currently being allocated.”

“The funding that’s there now barely keeps up with the ongoing repair issues,” NDP Education critic Marit Stiles says. “It doesn’t really give us a chance to catch up, so things are going to continue to get worse.”

That’s Wylie’s biggest fear – that without a major infusion of cash, more than a wall will be broken.

“I am very worried, as are my colleagues at Fix Our Schools, that a child will get severely hurt.”




Below is a breakdown of the amount of disrepair at schools across Ontario:

Ontario Schools Disrepair 2017 by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

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