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TDSB director of education Chris Spence acknowledged that the board could use the help from an Ontario government team advising on how to fix its operations. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
TDSB director of education Chris Spence acknowledged that the board could use the help from an Ontario government team advising on how to fix its operations. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

'The buck stops with me,' Spence says of TDSB's leadership woes Add to ...

The Toronto District School Board’s director of education is taking responsibility for the lack of leadership, accountability and controls that an independent report has blamed for the board’s capital deficit.

The 72-page document says the board must make permanent cuts to its spending by reducing hundreds of staff, improving their accountability, closing schools, and ending a “culture of providing everything to everyone” so that it can get expenditures under control.

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“I’m the director, the buck stops with me and I certainly take ownership,” education director Chris Spence said after meeting with trustees on Thursday to discuss the report.

Trustees approved 12 of the 23 recommendations made in the report, including suggestions to impose stricter controls for enrolment tracking, keeping better data on staffing, and changing the structure of senior management so that more checks and balances can be put in place among staff.

The board would only commit to “exploring options” when it came to more complex and controversial suggestions such as closing schools and laying off hundreds of caretakers, groundskeepers,and security guards and outsourcing their jobs.

The report was requested by the TDSB and commissioned by the Ontario government after it was revealed that the board overpaid for routine maintenance and construction work in the face of an estimated $30-million capital deficit. Auditors from PwC concluded that the board’s deficit is in fact much larger, closer to $62-million.

The board’s facilities department was a focus of much of the PwC report. The authors found that costs were comparatively high, there were too many staff and that they didn’t optimize their time. “Maintenance operations demonstrate little evidence of planning,” it reads, and “there is a culture of ‘providing everything to everyone’ and a lack of strategic analysis to determine what facilities are core vs. non-core and which should be in-sourced vs. outsourced.”

Work orders were not always budgeted, but when they were, 39 per cent exceeded their initial budget.

The auditors made suggestions for changes to the board’s operation that they said will generate between $50-million and $100-million in savings, including outsourcing, building modular schools and closing under-used ones.

“There appear to be opportunities for efficiencies,” said trustee Pamela Gough. “Generally I think if there’s money to be saved, we should go for it.”

The report also pointed out that the board operated about some school were not serving as many students as their capacity would allow. It found that a dozen were operating below 12.5 per cent utilization, and as many as 75 were operating below 50 per cent utilization.

The authors estimated that the board could save between $2.1-million and $5.7-million next school year by closing and consolidating under-utilized schools.

Trustees said some changes seemed feasible, such as bulk purchasing, while others, such as outsourcing jobs, would be difficult because of existing union contracts and because police checks are required of anyone who works inside schools.

“Some of this is just good practice,” trustee Elizabeth Moyer said. “But there are challenges to this report.”

Recommendations that the board should close and sell off under-used schools were particularly unpopular.

“I’m sick to death of being told to sell off land to fix buildings,” trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher said. “It’s short-term planning.”

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