Toronto·State of Our Schools

TDSB repair backlog piling up with no solution in sight — see where your school ranks

Part 1 of a series looking at the state of Toronto schools.

CBC Toronto series examines the state of TDSB schools and what can be done about its $3.7B repair backlog

Annette Carling, who teaches Grades 7 and 8, is pictured at her school, Winchester Junior and Senior Public School, on Sept. 1, 2021. Winchester is one of eight TDSB schools that would be cheaper to tear down and rebuild than to repair. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Many Toronto students who are heading back to school Thursday will be learning in buildings in serious need of repair.

Winchester Junior and Senior Public School, near Wellesley and Parliament streets in Cabbagetown, tops that list, according to data from the provincial government and the Toronto District School Board. 

It has a Facility Condition Index (FCI) of 135.53 per cent — the board's highest. A school's FCI is calculated by dividing the building's repair backlog by the cost to build a new school accommodating the same number of students. 

Winchester's above 100 per cent FCI means it would essentially be more costly to repair the school than to tear it down and build a new one.

Among those repairs deemed urgent at Winchester: water boilers that have passed their useful service life, parts of the roof and foundation, and HVAC pumps (the latter of which is taking on more importance as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights concerns around ventilation in classrooms).

"The windows are awful," said Annette Carling, who teaches Grades 7 and 8 at Winchester. "It gets really cold or it gets stifling hot because the boiler goes on ... you're actually opening windows in the wintertime because you're like, 'We can't breathe, it's so hot.'" 

Winchester Junior and Senior Public School is one of eight TDSB schools that would be cheaper to tear down and rebuild than to repair (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Carling says she's excited to see students in person this year and while she loves teaching at the school, building conditions are an overlooked systemic issue within the entire school system.

"We're supposed to be teaching health; why aren't we teaching health from the ground up? Let's be in a healthy space." 

What's happening at Winchester is playing out at TDSB schools across the city. The board started the year off with a $4.1-billion repair backlog, which now sits at $3.7 billion. This year, it received $275 million in provincial funding for repairs. At least eight schools have an FCI of more than 100 per cent, while 17 more exceed the 85 per cent mark

Almost half of the TDSB's schools are more than 60 years old; some are more than a century old, including Winchester. The older of its two buildings dates back to 1914, which means it was open during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and now, this September, it has HEPA filters in its classrooms in a bid to keep students healthy during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Winchester's older building dates back to 1914 and was open during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Maia Puccetti, executive officer of facilities services and planning for the TDSB, says a high FCI does not mean a building is unsafe, cannot be occupied or that the building's components aren't being maintained.

"Often we will find that there are elements that continue to work, continue to function or continue to be in relatively good condition," she said. "But, based on industry standards, they are at the end of their life cycle." 

Robin Pilkey, the TDSB trustee for Parkdale-High Park, says the board will continue to maintain building components until they break, even if they are well past their useful life, according to manufacturer and industry standards.

"The way our funding works, we fix things that are figuratively on fire," said Pilkey. 

According to Puccetti, the tipping point for whether the board considers maintaining a school or applying for funding to replace it is an FCI of 65 per cent, but she said a number of factors influence that decision.

Seventeen per cent of the board's schools, or 101, have an FCI of 65 per cent or higher.

  • CBC Toronto gathered the TDSB's FCI data for all schools, which you can search at the bottom of this story. You can also let us know if you have specific concerns about your school by filling out the Google form that follows.

The TDSB's repair backlog has grown in recent years and is projected to top $4 billion in the coming years, raising a serious question for Torontonians: how will we keep our public schools running and in good shape? 

Krista Wylie, the co-founder of the organization Fix Our Schools, said the solution has to come from Queen's Park. Since 2016, the province (under the Wynne and Ford governments) has spent some $1.4 billion per year on school repairs across the province, but that funding is split across some 5,000 schools. 

That price tag may look big, but Wylie said in her view it's the "absolute minimum."

"Unequivocally, the lion's share of the solution lies in the hands of our provincial government," Wylie told CBC Toronto.

She also said there needs to be more transparency about where that repair money is going and what the outcomes are.

Krista Wylie, co-founder of Fix Our Schools, stands in front of her son's school, Humberside Collegiate Institute, on Aug. 26, 2021. (Angelina King/ CBC)

Together with the $682 million repair backlog from the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Toronto schools account for more than 25 per cent of the province's total repair backlog of $16.8 billion. The French Viamode School Board told CBC Toronto it can't provide details on its renewal needs until after Sept. 13.  

Puccetti said it takes time to complete the work the provincial funding does pay for at the TDSB's 583 schools.

"If we had more money, we would do more," she said.

"I think what is of greater concern is it would be great if we could build more new schools … that are more energy efficient, that are barrier-free accessible, and importantly, also meet today's sort of pedagogical approaches to learning."

The age of the buildings doesn't matter when it comes to the provincial funding formula.

Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for the Minister of Education, said the government "is committed to building new schools" and spends $500 million a year to build new schools and renovate existing ones. 

When asked how the ministry thinks the TDSB should address its repair backlog, Clark did not directly answer the question and said the ministry invests $1.4 billion in school renewal every year.

CBC Toronto had an interview scheduled with Minister of Education Stephen Lecce for this series, but it was cancelled due to his schedule.

Disrepair affects learning, advocates say

Wylie points to research that suggests a school's physical environment directly affects student learning. A 2015 report from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation examined 25 research studies that used a variety of methodologies, all of which suggested a correlation between the two.  

Wylie uses the example of erratic heating in many old schools where it can often reach temperatures that are much too hot or cold. 

"The kids are wearing winter coats. And the teacher is wearing gloves as she or he is writing on the chalkboard. So clearly, when our basic human needs are not being met, learning takes a back seat," she said. 

For most people reading this story it's been a long time since you were in a classroom. However, those who grew up in the city may have a pretty clear mental image of the problems many schools deal with.

An Ontario classroom in disrepair. (Submitted by Fix Our Schools)

Those include, but aren't limited to: classrooms that rely on windows for ventilation, run-down bathrooms and lockers, and an array of damaged components, including floors, doors, windows and fences.

The FCI tracked by the TDSB is a good indicator of some of these problems. 

Sometimes, the FCI percentage is higher due to one big-ticket repair, but following the link to your school's breakdown will show the challenges facing the building.

Search to see a particular TDSB school's FCI and list of needed repairs here:

If your school is not part of the TDSB, this list includes the FCI of all Ontario schools from a 2016-2020 assessment cycle, but it's less up-to-date compared to the TDSB's list, which was last updated this July.

In the coming days, CBC Toronto will be diving more deeply into the challenges facing Canada's largest school board and what can be done to address the repair backlog. The series will touch on conditions at other school boards. However, the TDSB faces the largest repair backlog by far and has the most aging facilities of any GTA board.

with files from James Wattie

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