It has been a tough year for school boards, but for none more so than the Toronto District School Board. In addition to being caught in the middle of a dispute between teachers' unions and the Ontario government, the TDSB has been accused of overspending on construction projects, and the province has frozen its funding for capital projects and even threatened a take-over.
"It feels like were under siege at times, the issues coming at us have been relentless," said Education Director Chris Spence, who sat down with reporters Friday to discuss how he intends to steer Canada's largest and most diverse school board forward.
Building kindergarten classrooms
The announcement last week that the province was freezing funding for major school construction projects came as a shock to Dr. Spence and to trustees. It stalled more than a dozen construction projects, and cast uncertainty over plans for some additions to accommodate new full-day kindergarten classrooms for the fall of 2013.
Dr. Spence said the board is looking at more timely and cost-efficient ways of making room for full-day kindergarten, including pre-fabricated units that could be added onto existing schools.
"They're nicer, upgraded… [cough]… portables," he said.
Unlike portables, the units, which are built in Grimsby, Ont., attach directly onto existing schools and include their own washrooms and large windows that let in lots of natural light.
"In a perfect world would you consider it? Probably not," he said. "But this is not a perfect world."
Building New Schools
The freezing of the construction funding came after the board asked for an additional $11-million to renovate Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park. Trustees have said that unforeseeable complications – soil contamination and structural issues for example – made renovating the 100-year-old building a more complicated job than initially anticipated.
Dr. Spence indicated he believes there are lessons to be learned from the Nelson Mandela Park project, and has hired outside consultants to prepare a report over the next month. (He would not disclose which company would be involved, as he had not yet informed trustees.)
He said the board would have to review its project management practices and building standards, and whether it should scale back on environmentally friendly construction measures.
"Nobody is naïve enough to think we can keep doing what we're doing," he said.
The TDSB is about to embark on a round of community consultation designed to make programming across the board more homogeneous. Evening out access to arts, science and other specialized programs will even out enrolment – some schools will fill up, others will empty – and the fallout will result in school closures.
"There are going to be consolidations," he said. "We have to right-size this organization."
After a round of elementary school closings launched three years ago, high schools are likely next. The board is in the process of phasing out junior highs, and Dr. Spence said he expects smaller schools – which generally aren't in a position to support specialized programs – will be the most vulnerable.
Politicians haven't been the only ones criticizing the TDSB. The board earned enormous censure recently from parents for blocking unregistered students from running in their regional cross-country meets, and especially for announcing the decision the night before the first race.
The students were unregistered because their teachers had stopped volunteer work – like coaching – in order to protest the provincial government's decision to legislate the terms of their contracts.
The TDSB has initially said it would accommodate those students, but crowding pressures and safety concerns made them reverse their decision at the last minute.
"We took a lot of heat around that," he said. "Other school boards were just pulling the plug: We were out there trying to find an alternative."
This fall's student progress reports may be the next concern, because the teachers do some of that work on their own time, he said. Negotiations between the school board and the unions are ongoing.
"We're talking," he said.