London Free Press: “Repair bill triples under Liberals”
The London Free Press is shocked at the state of disrepair that has mounted over the past decade. Randall Denley, an Ottawa commentator reports: “Please write this number down and stick it to your fridge, so you can refer to it every time a provincial politician promises a new program that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. The repair backlog for the province’s schools is $16 billion. Yes, billion. That’s triple what it was 15 years ago, when the Liberal government took over.
Before we reach for the next bright, shiny thing, shouldn’t the provincial government start doing the basic job one would have thought our tax dollars would cover? Crumbling schools should be an issue in the June election, but don’t count on it. The only education topic that’s getting any air time so far is the provincial sex-ed curriculum. It’s a hot-button issue, not an important one.
The school repair problem is most severe in Toronto, where inadequate funding, an abundance of old schools and unwillingness to close schools have combined to leave the public school board with a $4-billion problem. Here in Ottawa, our situation is better, but not great. Our public school board has a repair backlog of $705 million. The province has slowly increased repair dollars over the last three years and the board has closed some schools that required big spending. The Ottawa public board received $65 million in repair money last year. About half of that goes to fix new problems. The other half helps reduce the backlog.
It’s good to know there is some progress in fixing up our local schools, but at this rate it will take more than 20 years to bring our schools into good repair. They aren’t going to fall down tomorrow, but letting this big backlog accumulate was hardly prudent management. School boards are easy to dislike, but give them credit for tracking the repair deficit and sharing that with the public. Without the boards’ information on the problem, would we even know its magnitude?
The Liberals have made some progress in fixing the problem they created. They have promised to spend $1.4 billion a year on school repairs. It’s enough to gradually whittle down the repair backlog, but new needs are added every year. This extended period of neglect and deterioration has created a mess that it’s going to take a long time to correct. The [Canadian] Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank usually described as “left-leaning,” has proposed a new approach to looking after our schools that is useful, one could even say conservative.
In a new report, the think tank suggests that the province define what is meant by keeping schools in a good state of repair, then pay what’s required. As the report puts it, “If that can be done for an office building or a shopping mall, why can’t it be done for a school?” Good point. Instead, the province avoids defining an expectation, so no one can demand that they meet it, and pays what it chooses to, not what’s actually required.
The centre’s report is a thoughtful take on the problems with Ontario schools. Among the solutions it proposes, none is more important than reconnecting special education funding with the real needs of individual students. Instead, the province funds based on a disability data drawn from the census, creating a perpetual shortage of money and no guarantee of service for those who need it.
That was the handiwork of Dalton McGuinty, the self-styled education premier. The report’s scariest recommendation of all is that the provincial government define what our schools are supposed to accomplish, and be held accountable for providing the money to achieve those goals. For politicians, it’s so much easier to keep saying our schools are the best in the world, more or less. These are the kinds of things we should be talking about in this election, not only because the government spends $29 billion a year on education, but because how it spends that money affects our kids’ future.”
Randall Denley is an Ottawa commentator, novelist and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at email@example.com