City election offers opportunity to end 'starvation' of public schools, advocates say

TDSB chair running for re-election says 'dire situation' needs attention from province

Posted: September 29, 2018
Last Updated: September 29, 2018

George Webster Elementary School is the first new school for the TDSB in years. (Grant Linton/CBC)

As the Toronto District School Board celebrates the opening of its first new school in years, some hope October's municipal election spurs new advocacy to fix the city's multi-billion-dollar school repair backlog. 

"It's just a disastrous failure in the management of public assets and something has to be done," said economist Hugh Mackenzie with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The latest public figures show a repair backlog for the TDSB of approximately $4 billion and a province-wide bill of roughly $16 billion, but school boards are "completely dependent" on the provincial government for funding to fix schools, Mackenzie said.


"The critical thing is to make sure the municipal election and the period after the municipal election serves as an opportunity to highlight the issue of school operations and maintenance and put pressure on the provincial government to address the problem because, as the data indicate, it's not just a problem in Toronto, it's a problem across the province," he said.

Trustees, councillors must 'stick their necks out'

The opening ceremony for the new state-of-the-art George Webster Elementary School took place this week and literally overshadowed the tear-down of the original structure built in the 1950s.

And George Webster was one of the lucky ones. Hundreds of other Toronto public schools are flirting with a complete teardown, but don't qualify.

George Webster Elementary School is being torn down and Wednesday was the grand opening of the new state-of-the-art school in its place. (Grant Linton/CBC)

CBC Toronto requested, but did not receive, an interview or statement from Education Minister Lisa Thompson to explain what the government's plan is to deal with the multi-billion dollar repair backlog at Ontario schools.

However in July, Ontario's new Tory government cancelled a $100-million fund earmarked for school repairs this year, a cut that comes as a result of Premier Doug Ford's campaign promise to scrap the province's cap-and-trade system.

The parents group Fix Our Schools said even though councillors and trustees don't "hold the purse strings" to fix schools, they have the power to push the province to pay up.


"Their big commitment is really around working relationships with the province and keeping the political pressure on and the willingness to stick their necks out a little bit and force that higher level of government to provide that adequate stable level of funding that is actually needed," said Krista Wylie, co-founder Fix Our Schools.

Hoping for no new cuts from province

TDSB Chair Robin Pilkey said the board now gets roughly $275 million a year to address the "hot spots" in the worst condition.

"We were very short funded for a very long time, I would say through the 2000s up until three or four years ago and over time, things build up," said Pilkey who is seeking re-election as the trustee for Parkdale-High Park.

In 2016, the former Liberal government announced a $1.1 billion investment to repair Ontario schools, but that doesn't even make a dent in the current backlogged repair bill and Pilkey worries about what's going to happen now that the new PC government has said it's committed to locating cost savings in every department.

The TSDB has not received any direction from the province yet, and anticipates that decision will come in spring 2019.

Parkdale-High Park Trustee and TDSB Chair Robin Pilkey is hoping the new PC government will not make any cuts to repairs for schools. 'It's not appropriate that kids go to schools that are in poor repair,' she says. (Grant Linton/CBC)

The 'starvation' of public education must end

The "strongest weapon" trustees have is leveraging the community to petition the government, said  Sheila Cary-Meagher, who's been the trustee for Beaches-East York for 32 years.

"The problem is not getting enough money to do the repairs. It's a really simple problem with a really simple solution, but if the province doesn't want to give us the money they don't have to," said the outgoing trustee.

"It is a starvation of public education."

The municipal election provides a critical opportunity for voters, says Cary-Meagher, who said the funding gaps to fix schools has been a consistent problem over her decades long tenure as a trustee.

"The main thing is, know who you are voting for, because the number of people who vote for trustees is minimal ... and that's kind of shocking since [the school is] the heart of every neighbourhood."

Boards must partner with other public agencies to get things done 

This term, Toronto city council created a first-of-its-kind group called the City-School Boards Advisory Committee which was meant in part to lobby the provincial government to advance school concerns, such as repair backlogs.

"We will be discussing collectively how to plan, how to put forward positions to the provincial government, how we can work together better, I think that has to be fundamental," said Beaches East York Coun. Janet Davis, who is a member of the advisory committee, but not seeking re-election.

'We have to work together to make our needs very clear with the provincial government and to find ways that we can serve our families in a more coordinated fashion,' says outgoing Beaches-East York City Councillor Janet Davis. (Grant Linton/CBC)

The newly built George Webster Elementary School is a good example of cost sharing and creative thinking. The City of Toronto put in over $3 million to build a new child care facility in the school.

Not just students and young people will be at the new facility, there will also be a parenting and family literacy centre along with a pediatric clinic and a child care centre.