The ABCs of EDCs: Why the TDSB can't collect money like other boards and the fight to change that
Part 3 of CBC's series on the state of TDSB schools looks at funding options for repairs
How do you clear a repair backlog of $3.7 billion?
The Toronto District School Board's repair backlog is projected to grow to almost $5 billion by 2025 if the current level of provincial funding doesn't increase, but the board says several alternative ways to chip away at that backlog or build new schools are being blocked by provincial red tape.
Among them, a 2017 provincial moratorium on school closures — which means the board cannot close schools with low student enrolment and sell the buildings and land — and not having access to Educational Development Charges (EDCs), which would allow the board to buy land for new schools.
EDCs are designed to ensure that growth pays for growth by charging developers for the potential influx of students their new residential properties could bring. School boards can then use that money to purchase land to build new schools, but not pay for repairs.
The TDSB says it could collect half a billion dollars over the next 15 years through EDCs. While other school boards, like the Toronto Catholic District School Board are eligible to collect EDCs, the TDSB is not.
Some TDSB schools crowded but board has over 50,000 empty seats
In order to qualify for EDCs, a board must have more students than space on a district-wide level, which means even though some TDSB schools are full, there's still a surplus of space across the board, and it is ineligible for EDCs.
Robin Pilkey, the TDSB trustee for Ward 7, Parkdale-High Park, points out that development does not happen equally across Toronto.
For example, she says, in the Keele Street Public School's boundary area, an additional 2,600 residential units will be built in the next five years and will push that school over capacity.
Through EDCs, Pilkey says the Toronto Catholic District School Board will get $5.5 million from new development in the area and TDSB will get no money.
"We have no way to meet our capacity needs in this area, regardless of the fact that schools and other areas farther away from here may not be full," she said.
Non-profit advocacy group Progress Toronto, which co-authored a report on EDCs, found the TCDSB collected and invested more than $204 million in EDC revenue between 1998 and 2020.
Saman Tabasinejad helped write the report and says in her neighbourhood — Willowdale, near Yonge Street and Finch Avenue East — there are children who can see a school from their apartment window, but it's at capacity and so they are bused elsewhere.
"It's breaking up a lot of community," Tabasinejad said. "If your kid has to go five kilometres away, how are you going to build a community with each other, with their classmates or other parents?"
The report said the unequal distribution of students across the board can lead to inequities. Catchment rules for schools that are over capacity usually mean that kids living in newer apartments or condos, often renters, are less likely to have access to a neighbourhood school than kids living in single-family houses.
Students in underutilized schools might lose access to some programming and overcrowded schools lead to more dangerous conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The other problem, says Pilkey, is that even if the TDSB could get access to EDCs, they can only be used to purchase land, not spend on the board's repair backlog.
"In a city like Toronto, buying land for a school isn't necessarily in our best interest," said Pilkey. "But money for repairs and expansion, where necessary, would certainly make a big difference."
That's why the TDSB, Progress Toronto and other advocacy groups are asking the province to allow boards to spend EDCs on repairs, renovations and the construction of new schools.
TDSB took province to court over EDCs
The TDSB lost a court fight against the province in June; the board argued not being able to collect EDCs was against the "fundamental purpose" of the legislation.
In the decision, Justice Michael Penny acknowledged a few reasons why the TDSB has excess capacity, specifically most secondary schools were built with the assumption that the majority of students would attend public high schools.
"That assumption changed with the introduction of full funding for the Catholic system. Also, the abolition of Grade 13 added to the problem," he wrote.
The TDSB says it's considering appealing the decision.
The education ministry didn't directly respond to a question about whether the TDSB should receive additional funding since it can't collect EDCs, but it did say the government is committed to building new schools and spends $500 million a year to build new schools and repair existing ones across Ontario.
'The province has definitely tied our hands'
Pilkey says more money would be available for repairs if the TDSB could consolidate and close schools with low enrolment and then sell the buildings and land. Instead, she says, the board is spending money on repairs at schools that would be cheaper to tear down and build anew rather than complete all the repairs.
The TDSB has eight schools that fit that description, and the board says it would seriously consider whether it should maintain or rebuild an additional 93 schools.
"The province has definitely tied our hands, especially around the moratorium on school closure," Pilkey said.
Maia Puccetti, the TDSB's executive officer of facilities services and planning, says if the province lifted the moratorium on school closures, it would make a "significant difference" when it comes to funding repairs and school planning.
According to Puccetti, the board currently sells existing unused property — albeit through a complicated process that must meet certain criteria — but those funds can only go toward repairs at existing schools or updates, not new additions.
So, if a school isn't accessible, the board can't spend that money on putting in an elevator, for example, but it could fix the windows.
She says she'd like more funding and greater flexibility on how to spend it.
"We would be building schools that are more energy efficient, that are barrier free, accessible, and importantly, also meet today's sort of pedagogical approaches to learning."
"It's hard to continue doing what we're doing," Puccetti said. "There just isn't enough funding."
The education ministry didn't answer a CBC News question about whether it would consider lifting the moratorium on closing schools in Ontario.
A spokesperson said it spends $1.4 billion in school repairs every year and that the government will "continue to invest in building modern schools."
with files from James Wattie and John Rieti