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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Fixing Toronto District School Board’s funding woes not that hard

Paul de Jong
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Fixing Toronto District School Board’s funding woes not that hard

There was a hue and cry recently when the Ford government cut funding for Toronto public school repairs.

Although it wasn’t intentional, the end of Ontario’s Cap and Trade programs has left the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) millions of dollars short for badly needed school renovations. However, there is an easy fix that could do far more than solve the school board’s current funding crunch.

The TDSB is in a tough spot. It was set to tap into $25 million for upkeep from Ontario’s Green House Gas Reduction Fund. With that fund now defunct, board chair Robin Pilkey says something has to give.

“Our repair backlog is so large that every piece counts,” she said. “We’ll have to make decisions in the next few weeks (about) whether we don’t do those projects or we take the money out of…other funds and scrap something else.”

The reality is there’s no need for students to freeze in winter, or swelter in summer, as some would have us believe. There is a simple way for the TDSB to find the funding it needs to fix schools.

Here it is: a small change in the way construction projects are tendered could translate into millions in savings for the school board.

First, a legislative loophole has to close. It’s Section 126 of Ontario’s Labour Relations Act that forces the TDSB and the University of Toronto to award all of their construction work to a particular union (or small group of unions) and their affiliated contractors.

Several municipalities are in the same boat, including the City of Toronto, Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie and the Region of Waterloo, who are also required to award construction contracts time and time again to the same handful of companies.

When competition is restricted, costs rise.

Simply put, the TDSB and too many municipalities are paying a lot more than they should for maintenance and construction work.

Over the years the TDSB has made headlines for paying hugely inflated costs for work at public schools that’s carried out by tradespeople with an exclusive contract.

For example, the installation of a school’s front lawn sign: $19,000. An electrical outlet in a school library: $3,000. There was also the $143 bill to install a $17 pencil sharpener.

For anyone still in doubt, there’s plenty of research to show the TDSB has much to gain from a little competition.

There’s a growing body of research that confirms competitive construction tendering saves taxpayers’ money.

A study just released by the Cardus think-tank, Skimming Off the Top: How Closed Tendering Weakens Our Ability to Pursue the Public Good, suggests fair and open bidding for construction work could save the TDSB $1.8 billion for repairs.

A City of Montreal study shows by allowing all qualified bidders to compete on construction projects, taxpayers could save between 20 and 30 per cent. Research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Texas A & M also show the greater the number of bidders on construction work, the lower the cost.

Allowing healthy competition on public construction projects has major benefits for taxpayers right across the province. At the very least, it ensures taxpayers are getting good value.

Right now, over $1 billion worth of municipal construction work in Ontario each year is subject to construction labour monopolies. That includes everything from renovating Toronto public schools to installing park splash pads.

With Premier Doug Ford declaring that “the party’s over with taxpayers’ money” and pledging to stop the wasteful spending of public tax dollars, the timing seems right to come to the rescue of the TDSB.

Changing Ontario’s antiquated labour laws could make all the difference for the cash strapped TDSB, and so many other Ontario municipalities who, through no fault of their own, have been forced to honour exclusive contracts that squander taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada. Send comments and Industry Perspectives column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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