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Ontario lifts capital funding freeze on TDSB

Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals is pictured in her office at the Ministry of Education in Toronto on Thursday March 14, 2013.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government has lifted the capital funding freeze on the Toronto District School Board, saying the board has made "significant progress" since it went over budget on multiple construction projects last year.

Education Minister Liz Sandals announced in a statement Thursday that the freeze would end now that the board has addressed some of its spending issues with the help of a provincial special assistance team. But the board is not quite out of the woods.

"The team's report makes it clear that there is much more work to do," Ms. Sandals wrote in a statement, pointing to several cost-saving recommendations, from a PricewaterhouseCoopers report released last November, that the board has failed to implement.

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"It is vital that the TDSB build on the good work they have completed with the special assistance team and continue to seek further opportunities for improvement."

The report from the special assistance team lays out specific recommendations for the board to heed if they hope to get their finances back on track. Among those recommendations is an attendance support program to help curb the number of days off teachers in the board have been taking. According to the report, "lost days per year per employee reach[ed] double digits in most cohorts," and noted recommendations for an attendance support program have been made as far back as 2009, but the board has yet to take note.

"Along with the obvious financial implications of decreased productivity, costly replacement workers and increased administrative costs, excessive absenteeism diminishes the students' learning experience in many ways," the report read.

Other recommendations included reviewing staff allocation processes, increasing fees for renting out rooms or land and making "creative design" a secondary consideration in order to save money in construction and architecture.

The funding freeze was imposed last fall because several capital projects had run over budget. One of the most notable was the renovation of Nelson Mandela Public School. The budget to restore the century-old downtown building nearly doubled, from the projected cost of $16-million to $30-million.

School board trustees were furious when the province froze their funding last fall, raising concerns about overcrowded classrooms and the capital pressures of moving to full-day kindergarden.

The school board also faced heat this year after it was revealed its contractors were charging astronomical fees for minor repairs and construction projects, including $161,805.37 to unclog toilets and $56,531.76 to replace light bulbs in the 2011-2012 school year, according to data obtained by The Globe and Mail through a Freedom of Information request.

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The board reluctantly agreed to work with the assistance team after then-minister Laurel Broten threatened to investigate and take control of the board's finances.

Donna Quan, acting director of the TDSB, said the board is "very pleased" the province has lifted the freeze and believes the board has learned from mistakes, which included giving the green light to projects without securing funds beforehand.

"We now have a bit of a culture shift in terms of making sure funding is available in advance before we approve a project," Ms. Quan said.

She added that the board has also approved a new three-year capital plan and a three-year deficit recovery plan. Part of that plan includes identifying potential revenue sources such as selling buildings or land. The board's priorities for capital projects are those that address overcrowding in schools, Ms. Quan said. But she agreed the board still has far to go.

"We have an action plan in print, now it's time to bring that plan to life in a measurable way."

A report from the province's assistance team — comprised of former York Region director of education Bill Hogarth and former chief financial officer Ralph Benson — shows the board has made some progress but also identified some issues.

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"Despite their commitment to make improvements in many areas, the board continues to be challenged by the lack of an organizational vision to support its core mandate of student achievement," the report reads.

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