News / Toronto

TDSB renews expensive maintenance contract in 'bizarre move'

In a move that dropped jaws at Ontario’s largest school board, the province has suddenly renewed the infamous contract that gave taxpayers in Toronto $3,000 electrical outlet jobs and a $143 pencil sharpener installation.

“It does not even make sense,” Toronto District School Board Chair Chris Bolton told the Star Thursday. “It is a bizarre move that has undone all the work we have been doing.”

The province, as part of the sweeping move that imposed a contract on public school teachers, decided to do the same with the almost 900 members of the Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council, a unique construction force that works exclusively for the TDSB. The council’s last contract expired in August 2012.

An ongoing Star investigation has revealed that some of the work done by council members (plumbers, electricians, carpenters, groundskeepers and numerous other trades) is so inefficient that it is costing taxpayers millions of dollars more than would be charged at other school boards. A provincially sponsored consultants report carried out last fall came to the same conclusion. It found too little “wrench time” by workers. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report recommended contracting out some jobs.

The TDSB’s Bolton said they had been negotiating with the trades council, and on the advice received from the provincial consultants were trying to strike a new contract that would give better value to taxpayers. They wanted to contract out some jobs, and also remove a controversial payment (0.5 per cent of the job value) that had to be given by outside firms to the union every time a job (typically something too big for the council workers) was performed. The Star found that some companies inflated their rates and the TDSB, in effect, was paying the money to the trades council.

Then came news from Education Minister Laurel Broten. Despite findings by the consultants, the trades council contract (which expired last August) would be extended to 2014.

In a statement confirming the move when the Star made inquiries, Broten said she was “not prepared to provide the (TDSB) with an exception to continue negotiations that has not been provided to any other school board in Ontario.”

Broten acknowledged that the TDSB is facing “operational challenges” and she urged all school boards to make the “best use of our public education dollars.”

An email sent to the TDSB by an official in Broten’s office said the decision was made to “bring stability to the system.”

The Star was unable to reach trades council head Jimmy Hazel. In previous statements, Hazel has stood by his workers but also vowed to assist the Star in its investigation. One early set of documents, which revealed the high costs of some jobs, was sent to the Star by Hazel last year. Since that time, Hazel has gone on the attack.

In a recent communication to members by Hazel’s council, the trade group criticized the Star for “careless reporting.” The communiqué said that the notion that contracting out some jobs would provide cost savings was “illusory.” The communiqué did state that having on-site caretakers do small jobs such as installing pencil sharpeners was a good idea.

The Star’s research has shown numerous examples of workers spending dozens of hours on a job that was relatively simple. In some cases, workers signed in at a school, left, and were tracked to coffee shops or bars by TDSB investigators.

Other school boards, such as the Toronto Catholic School Board, employ a small construction and maintenance force and contract out for many of the jobs the TDSB uses dedicated workers to perform.

Meanwhile, a Toronto Police investigation is underway into allegations that former TDSB workers (they were let go or retired after allegations surfaced) used school board time and property to perform outside work.

Back at TDSB headquarters, chair Chris Bolton said the group of managers who have been trying to follow the provincial consultants’ instructions are devastated by the minister’s decision.

“What is the point of the Pricewaterhouse report and the special assistance team they have sent us? We were told we needed some help, we have accepted it and now they have said we have to do it under the old contract,” Bolton said.

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