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Ontario steps in to trim Toronto school board’s overspending

TDSB director of education Chris Spence acknowledged that the board could use the help from an Ontario government team advising on how to fix its operations.

MICHELLE SIU/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is sending in a team to advise the Toronto District School Board on how to fix its operations following revelations of overspending on routine maintenance and major construction projects along with a growing deficit.

The province has been critical of the TDSB's estimated $50-million capital deficit, its retrofit of a school building that has run at least $8.4-million over budget, and high prices maintenance workers have charged for work, including $143 to install a pencil sharpener.

The move to appoint a special assistance team of education experts follows an independent report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers which won't be released until Thursday, but which sources say found serious problems with the board's oversight of its operations, including maintenance workers, building construction and finances.

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Paris Meilleur, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Laurel Broten, said the ministry is offering help, not forcing it on the board, and that the team will "work collaboratively with the board's senior staff to find solutions that will address the board's operational and fiscal challenges."

The advisers will oversee operations at the board, including school building repairs, construction of new additions for full-day kindergarten and management of the board's fiscal woes. The board has until Wednesday night to decide whether it will accept the team's advice.

Director of education Chris Spence acknowledged that the TDSB could use the help. "We've got a lot of work to do," he said. "We're going to own this."

Staff and trustees, however, have raised concerns about handing over powers to provincially appointed advisers. Tensions between the province and its largest school board have been growing, most recently over the government's decision to freeze the TDSB's funding for new school buildings, and a threat from Ms. Broten that she would appoint a supervisor to take control.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the province, and obtained by The Globe and Mail, the TDSB says it is committed to working with the ministry but asked for clarification on the role of the advisory team, including how the advisers would differ from a ministry takeover.

Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos said that the board has shown a lack of "leadership and accountability" over its building and maintenance issues and that staff should accept external guidance being offered. "It seems to me that the TDSB is a rudderless boat," he said.

Construction on badly needed new school buildings and additions is at a standstill after the province yanked funding and trustees failed to agree on a new capital plan. Staff's proposed plan included selling off parts of schoolyards, an idea which prompted an outcry from members of the public and which trustees dismissed as an act of desperation.

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The Pricewaterhouse Coopers report was requested by the TDSB and commissioned by the province, which told the board Thursday that it wanted to appoint a team of advisers. Trustees discussed the offer late Tuesday and responded with a list of questions regarding the team's role and powers.

The province announced it was freezing funding for new buildings after a retrofit of Nelson Mandela Park Public School ran nearly $10-million over its $16.4-million budget and is now three months overdue.

The board was stripped of its powers by a Progressive Conservative government in 2002 because it failed to balance its budget. A handful of current trustees sat on the board at the time, and are reluctant to cede power again.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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