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TDSB workers used public funds for personal business, manager says

Angelos Bacopoulos, who was brought in to clean up the board's maintenance and building departments, is shown at the TDSB maintenance facility on Dec. 19, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto District School Board employees visited bars, bought groceries and filled the gas tanks of their cars using public money and during working hours, according to the manager appointed to crack down on the board's troubled building management department.

Angelos Bacopoulos, a former manager of the city's waste management services, was hired just over two years ago as chief officer of facilities. Since then, he says, he has been working to unmake what he described as a deeply seeded culture of entitlement and complacency that pervaded the unionized staff.

What he found was an environment where millions of dollars were spent executing more than 160,000 work orders each year, with so little oversight that employees were able to visit a bar while on the clock.

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In recent months, revelations of past overspending on everything from routine maintenance to major construction work at the TDSB have emerged, and the pressure is on Mr. Bacopoulos and his staff to turns things around.

The board is looking to make major changes as it works to rebuild faith with the public and with the Ontario government, which has frozen funding for new school buildings. The contract between the TDSB and its skilled trades union expired at the end of August. Sources said talks have reached an impasse, and that the board has filed for conciliation.

Mr. Bacopoulos spoke with The Globe and Mail about what he discovered as he dug into his new job, and how he plans to get Canada's largest school board back the right track.

Hitting the bar

Installing GPS devices in the board's fleet of vehicles is the most controversial recommendation Mr. Bacopoulos has made yet. When he introduced the tracking devices to the city's waste management fleet, workers responded by bashing and breaking the devices. (He later installed protective metal shields.)

Surveillance details have already discovered that some TDSB staff are leaving job sites, visiting bars, and taking roundabout routes that decrease productivity, Mr. Bacopoulos said. GPS devices will help management track employees' movements.

"Early next year we'll be able to install them. We're going to be able to monitor the activities of our folks, make sure that they're taking the proper routes, that they're being productive."

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Wild spending

Facilities staff are given credit cards that are meant to be used for purchasing supplies such as screws, nails or wood. Mr. Bacopoulos and his management staff noticed that employees were making unexpectedly large purchases, often at smaller "mom and pop" stores that made cost-appropriateness hard to track. He implemented new rules limiting the vendors where workers could shop, and began monitoring their purchases.

"They were buying things like groceries," said Mr. Bacopoulos. "But people recognize we started monitoring that and started to straighten their ways. They know we're still at that."

Leaving early

At the end of their shift, custodians set alarms on school buildings to close them for the night. One of the first things Mr. Bacopoulos says he requested when he started working for the TDSB were records on those alarms, to see when they were being turned on.

"I found some really weird things happening," he said. "Like the alarms are being set sometimes as early as three or four hours before the end of the shift."

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Facilities management began monitoring those alarms, using them as a metric to ensure that custodians were working their full shifts. Monthly reports initially revealed schools were regularly being closed down early, so managers began taking discipline action against staff.

"We've got that under control and people are working their full shifts and setting the alarms when they're supposed to be setting them."

Filling the tank

To refuel their company vehicles, facilities staff were given credit cards and free rein to fill up wherever they like. Mr. Bacopoulos found that one of the biggest consumers of gasoline was a school custodian who only had a snow blower and lawnmower to fill.

"We did an investigation and determined that he was using it for his own personal use and we ended up terminating that caretaker," Mr. Bacopoulos said.

Staff are now required to use the board's own fuelling stations and mileage is monitored and measured against fuel consumption.

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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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