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Report into Toronto school’s overspending lays no blame and yields few answers

A report on the renovations at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, obtained by The Globe and Mail, leaves many questions unanswered.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

A probe of cost overruns that plagued a Toronto school-rebuilding project – and helped push the province into freezing the public school board's capital budget – found no responsibility and few lessons on how to avoid similar mistakes.

The report on the renovations at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, obtained by The Globe and Mail, leaves many questions unanswered, including whether the costs associated with the $16.4-million project – which has run $8.4-million over budget and is still not complete – were reasonable.

The report into the delay and extra costs was commissioned by the Toronto District School Board's director of education, Chris Spence, after provincial Education Minister Laurel Broten, demanding answers on the cost overruns, froze the board's funding for all new capital projects.

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The report was circulated to members of a school board committee for discussion on Monday and is expected to be on the agenda for a full board meeting Wednesday.

"I'm sorely disappointed," said trustee Sam Sotiropoulos (Scarborough-Agincourt). "Quite frankly there's no accountability present in the report."

The funding for the retrofit and additions to Nelson Mandela school, located within a 97-year-old heritage building in Regent Park, was approved in February of 2011, with the opening set for fall 2012. That has been put off until January 2013, after a number of setbacks, including soil contamination, structural concerns with the old roof and gymnasium, and incomplete land-transfer agreements.

In October, shortly after the TDSB requested more money to help complete the project, Ms. Broten said she was "outraged" over the cost overruns and an apparent lack of understanding on the board's part on where the extra costs had come from, noting that board projects run over budget as often as 25 per cent of the time. She threatened that if the TDSB couldn't prove it was managing its finances responsibly that she would appoint a supervisor to take control of the board. It was then that Mr. Spence commissioned the report.

The report's authors, who work for Revay and Associates Limited and Arcon Engineering Consultants, do point to some specific problems. The TDSB's preconstruction studies were insufficient, the report says, and the project was expanded to include a retaining wall and three kindergarten classrooms before the necessary funds were secured.

They also write that late in the project, "TDSB management did not clearly understand the value of the completed work [and] are now scrambling to secure the necessary funds to address the cost overruns."

The authors stop short, however, of placing blame with any "one person or single party" and say that all connected with the project "acted with a fair and reasonable degree of skill, and in good faith with the common objective of building the best facility possible, and delivering it within the revised schedule."

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Trustee and TDSB board chair Chris Bolton (Trinity-Spadina) acknowledged that trustees might disagree over whether the report provides sufficient answers, or whether further evaluation is needed.

"It's fair to say that some people found the report somewhat useful," he said. "It's very expensive to do evaluations."

The report outlines recommendations for the TDSB, including establishing procedures to ensure that the board stops spending money it doesn't have, reviewing how it missed so many risks and hidden costs to begin with, and hiring an independent consultant to determine whether in fact it got fair value for all the work associated with the project.

Trustee Elizabeth Moyer (Scarborough Southwest) said for now she'd rather see funds directed toward finishing the school's construction than toward commissioning more reports.

"I'd rather get through this project and then reflect later," she said.

Trustee Sheila Ward, who oversees Nelson Mandela, said she felt the report contained some important lessons for the board, but that it left questions to pursue.

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"If we stop now we haven't done our job," she said.

The board should follow recommendations such as conducting more thorough risk assessments before construction, including taking deeper soil samples in order to better detect contamination, she said.

Some questions will require further review, such as the issue of whether costs were reasonable. "I still don't know whether we got value for our money," she said.

The TDSB has pointed to issues with soil contamination and the school's aging structure as sources of unforeseeable costs.

"It ran off course and site conditions were a big part of that," Mr. Spence said. "Project management, controls and communication were part of it, but we've got staff who are competent."

The cash-strapped board is in such great need of capital funding that staff drafted a list of 126 schoolyards from which land could sold off. Trustees are expected to discuss the list at Wednesday's board meeting.

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