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TDSB budget chief Chris Spence is clamping down on oversight of maintence and construction at Canada’s largest school board. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)
TDSB budget chief Chris Spence is clamping down on oversight of maintence and construction at Canada’s largest school board. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

TDSB: 'Too early' to cut ties with union despite alleged overpricing Add to ...

The Toronto District School Board says they’re not ready to sever ties with a union representing skilled workers in spite of allegations of overpriced pencil sharpener installations, hallway paint jobs and other routine maintenance work that have emerged in recent weeks.

Since amalgamation, the school board has had an exclusive contract with the union, the Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council, for small jobs. The latest contract expires at the end of August.

“I think it’s far too early to comment on that,” said Chris Spence, the TDSB’s director of education, but added the allegations will have an impact on the “deep conversations” when the contract is renegotiated.

Dr. Spence is among TDSB staff who have previously described concerns that schools were being charged too much for routine maintenance work, going back more than a decade. School administrators, however, felt powerless to do anything about it.

“I don’t know for sure if we have a firm understanding of it [how widespread the problem is],” Dr. Spence said at Wednesday’s special operations and facilities management committee, where trustees voted on improving accountability.

He pointed out that the board deals with roughly 190,000 work orders annually, and some did slip through the cracks and result in overspending.

Staff cautioned the trustees at the meeting that rejecting a new contract with the union, an umbrella organization of 900 workers at the board, could prove problematic.

According to provincial law, the board would then have to establish roughly 20 collective agreements with all trade unions within the board – including separate agreements for plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers.

Instead, staff recommended the installation of GPS tracking devices in all maintenance and construction vehicles at a cost of $300,000 a year in order to reduce fuel consumption and optimize scheduling. Staff also suggested having work charges paid by headquarters rather than individual schools and producing monthly reports to compare staff productivity.

Trustee Shelley Laskin suggested parent volunteers should be allowed to do regular maintenance and repair work at schools if they are qualified, but chief facilities officer Angelos Bacopoulos said that was not possible under the current contract with the union. It could, however, be negotiated as part of a new agreement at the end of August.

Josie Daga, a parent of two children who attend TDSB schools, said the staff’s recommendations only address “half the problem.”

“The real problem is the stronghold the union has on our costing,” she said. “Until we open these jobs up for competitive bidding, then we’re not going to solve this problem.”

The union that represents the board’s skilled trade workers has expressed general support for changes; however, it is defending its members and blaming board management for inadequate oversight of pricey maintenance and construction work.

In a letter sent to TDSB trustees, union president Jimmy Hazel says that he has urged Dr. Spence “on several occasions” to implement changes to the board’s construction and maintenance departments.

“We don’t see, review or approve work orders from schools, hours that have been worked on a job or time sheets for work performed,” Mr. Hazel wrote. “This is management’s responsibility.”

Responding specifically to the incident involving a pencil sharpener that was reportedly installed at a cost of $143, Mr. Hazel writes that TDSB staff made the mistake in directing a carpenter, rather than a caretaker, to install the device.

“It would be like directing an electrician to screw in a light bulb. It is a waste of their time and taxpayers’ money.”

These allegations of overspending come at a delicate time for the board as it had to vote in deep cuts of $109-million to pass a balanced budget of $3-billion.

Earlier, the board also agreed to a Ministry of Education operational review to find efficiencies resulting in $9-million in savings in the budget passed last month, including a PricewaterhouseCoopers deep review of its Facility Services department.

Dr. Spence said the board also plans to implement a new system to flag any work orders that exceed standard costs.

There will be another meeting on Aug. 29 that will again address accountability issues and the full board will vote on Wednesday’s report from staff on Sept. 5.

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