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Pricey repair bills on the chopping block at TDSB

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Admitting to an entrenched culture of overspending on routine repair jobs at the Toronto District School Board, director of education Chris Spence has promised to clamp down on maintenance and construction at Canada's largest school board.

In an interview Tuesday, Dr. Spence said he has experienced the board's long history of paying big money for basic work. When he was an administrator at Lawrence Heights Middle School, nearly 15 years ago, "We wanted to get some painting done," he said, "and the cost was extraordinary."

Rather than reporting his concerns to headquarters, he opted not to have the work done. He suspects that many principals have come to accept high costs for routine jobs – painting, installing pencil sharpeners or signs – as unavoidable.

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"I think it's just become very entrenched in the TDSB culture," he said.

He heard similar concerns repeated at a principal's meeting earlier this year where a school administrator described being charged more than $140 to have a pencil sharpener installed.

"We're embarrassed to have to deal with this in such a public way, but these are taxpayer dollars," said Dr. Spence.

In order to improve accountability, the board is implementing a new electronic system that will flag work orders that exceed standard costs. Starting next fall, payments will be centrally controlled rather than dolled out by individual schools and the board has requested funding from the Ministry of Education to conduct a deep operational review of its Facility Services department.

While the Ministry of Education did not outright say that it supported the TDSB's plan for an external audit, a spokesperson for Laurel Broten said "it's always good for boards to take a critical look at spending and how to make the best use of our public education dollars."

This is a delicate time for the board to face allegations of waste, just months after trustees voted to eliminate jobs in order to balance the TDSB's nearly $3-billion budget.

There are approximately 900 plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers who do work for the TDSB through a long-standing and exclusive contract with the Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council. That contract expires at the end of August. A Toronto Star investigation recently found evidence that workers were inflating charges for jobs such as sign and electrical outlet installations, something union leaders have denied.

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Union leader Jimmy Hazel did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

At a Special Operations and Facilities Management committee meeting next week, TDSB Chair Chris Bolton said he expects staff to report back on what has been done thus far with the concerns raised over excessive spending, as well as outline short- and long-term goals to mitigate the problem. Additionally, Dr. Spence will likely report back on discussions with the ministry regarding funding for an operational audit.

"It's good business practice to have audits and checks randomly on projects, but we also need to ramp up in terms of looking for anomalies," Mr. Bolton said. "We need to work out this problem once and for all."

Mr. Bolton said that the board's facilities manager, Angelos Bacopoulos, has begun to crack down on spending issues and brought in several supervisory staff several months ago, prior to the Star's investigation.

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