Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten says she is “outraged” that the Toronto District School Board has allowed cost overruns on a number of capital projects, including one that is 50 per cent over budget.
Nelson Mandela Park Public School has exceeded its capital budget of $21.7-million for renovations by more than $10-million, raising questions about the TDSB’s ability to manage its fiscal affairs. Ms. Broten told reporters on Thursday that she is concerned other TDSB projects have also gone over budget.
The Ministry of Education has put the TDSB on notice that it will not approve funds for new projects until government officials get an explanation of how and why the cost overruns happened and assurances that they won’t happen again.
“A number of TDSB trustees indicated their outrage,” Ms. Broten said, referring to their irate reaction to the news at a meeting on Wednesday evening. “I am also outraged. ...We are not happy that they don’t know why there is a $10-million cost overrun.”
The board says it had to delay the opening of the refurbished Nelson Mandela elementary school in Regent Park to next January from September because of construction delays. Trustee Sheila Ward, who oversees Nelson Mandela, said the 97-year-old building yielded surprises soon after construction began. The roof was in worse condition than anyone had anticipated, old rebar pillars in the gym needed to be replaced, and the soil beneath the floors was contaminated. “It gave off a kind of rotten egg gas,” Ms. Ward said.
The province approved the decision to retrofit the school rather than tear it down and start again, so Ms. Ward said she had “no patience” for its reaction to the budget overruns.
Trustee Pamela Gough questioned whether the province appreciated the full impact of halting new projects, some of which were due to get under way in Ms. Broten’s own riding.
Norseman Junior Middle School, for example, near Islington Avenue and Bloor Street West, was due for more space for full-day kindergarten and for Grade 1 through Grade 8 students.
The plan had been to do both expansions at once, but the funding freeze has made that uncertain, Ms. Gough said.
Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos welcomed the province’s decision to freeze funding for new projects.
“I applaud them for taking a stand and holding the TDSB to account,” he said. “It’s a wake-up call for the board and its been a long time coming.”
The government will continue financing projects that are under way, including those associated with rolling out the province’s full-day kindergarten program, Ms. Broten said. But there will be nothing for new projects until the TDSB develops a satisfactory capital spending plan, she said.
The province is trying to rein in program spending as it grapples with a $14.8-billion deficit. A $10-million cost overrun on one project means another one cannot be approved.
Ms. Broten would not say whether she plans to ask provincial auditors to examine the TDSB’s financial records or appoint a supervisor. New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath said such drastic action should be taken only if the answers the ministry gets from the TDSB are not satisfactory.
“In these days of tight budgets, it’s disconcerting to see such a large discrepancy between what the project was expected to cost and what it ended up costing,” Ms. Horwath told reporters.
Progressive Conservative MPP Jim Wilson called on Ms. Broten to step in immediately.
“To brush it off as she seems to be doing at this point isn’t acceptable to taxpayers,” he told reporters.