Province ‘outraged’ over TDSB cost overruns, warns supervisor may be sent in
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A political firestorm has erupted between Ontario and its largest school board over cost overruns for building projects, with an “outraged” Education Minister Laurel Broten warning she would send in a supervisor to take over the Toronto District School Board’s affairs.
Angry trustees countered they’re just as outraged by the province’s bid to “micromanage” their projects. Trustee Irene Atkinson even suggested the board hold a day of protest.
Broten came out swinging Thursday, a day after her ministry informed the board it has frozen funding for new TDSB building projects, citing the possible $10 million to $11 million cost overrun for the retrofit of the historic Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park, originally priced at $21.7 million.
“A number of TDSB trustees indicated their outrage? Well, I am also outraged,” Broten told reporters.
“We are not happy they don’t know why (the project could cost up to $11 million more),” said Broten, calling the Nelson Mandela school project the “most egregious” example of overspending.
She warned that the government will send in a supervisor — as it has at other troubled boards — if circumstances warrant. “If we get the best advice that’s what is needed, we will take those steps.”
The board is already under fire for the outrageous cost of maintenance and repairs exposed by Torstar News Service earlier this year, such as $143 to install a pencil sharpener in one school.
“Since 2010, the ministry has been concerned about the TDSB’s capital deficit that is now at just under $50 million,” said Broten’s spokesperson Paris Meilleur.
But concerns arose this year over new projects, the expanded scope of others and changing price tags, she said. Those concerns reached a peak with the Nelson Mandela overrun.
Yet it was unclear Thursday exactly which projects the ministry has pulled the plug on from among at least a dozen new construction projects and six redevelopments. Broten assured trustees that building for full-day kindergarten will not be affected, and Meilleur said the freeze is only for construction yet to begin and should not last too long.
However, one of the plans — the expansion of Avondale Public School in the condo boom town of Willowdale, where hundreds of children must be bused out of their neighbourhood — is up in the air because it has not yet received government approval even though it includes several classrooms for full-day kindergarten.
Trustee Mari Rutka sent a bulletin to families saying she was “frustrated. We need school space now.”
At the heart of the dispute is the Nelson Mandela retrofit, which ground to a virtual halt this summer over a mysterious string of delays. The opening date, already postponed to January, now seems very much up in the air, said TDSB trustee Sheila Ward, who represents the neighbourhood.
The board will ask outside consultants to conduct a review of what went wrong in time for the November board meeting, which Ward said should help clear the air with the ministry and spell out the next steps.
“I’m not prepared to say it will be ready by January until some stuff gets sorted out — there’s stuff that should have been signed off early on still hasn’t been done and work that can’t be done until orders are signed,” said Ward. “We need to ask whose responsibility it was to blow the whistle.”
A staff report presented to the board’s operations and facilities management committee in September spelled out many of the extra costs.
“Soil and structural conditions were discovered that required extensive remediation and repair, adding significantly to the project cost and duration. Clearances required under environmental regulations have proven to be more costly and time-consuming than anticipated,” noted the report.
In what it described as a “worst-case scenario,” the report warned the project could require another $3.3 million for “structural” work; $1.5 million for removal of contaminated soils, $1.3 million for mechanical and electrical work, $2.5 million more for architectural work, $1.3 million more in additional professional fees (which sources said have since been reduced), $2.45 million in phase two construction and as much as $3.55 million if upgrading the gym involves more repairs and soil treatment.