Once again, Canada's largest publicly funded school board is pushing to get more money so that it can avoid the difficult choices it's largely failed to make over the past 10 years.
I speak of the Toronto District School Board and its press conference Sept. 4 asking the province to change the Education Development Charges (EDCs) regulations so it can qualify for them and use them to fund badly needed repairs and renovations to its existing schools.
In a nutshell, the last revision to EDCs set up a system where these growth-related construction fees could be put into place in municipalities where the district school board's facilities were over capacity and projected to remain so for a set period. They follow the municipal development charge philosophy where growth pays for growth -- DCs are charged when a building permit is taken out and put into reserve funds where they are used by municipalities to pay for growth-related costs such as new facilities, roads, or expansion of existing infrastructure to accommodate the added people/businesses.
School boards can't have EDCs if, as a whole, they have vacant spaces in their buildings. This has in essence prevented most every public board from using these building fees as a way of collecting revenue that can be used to fund new schools in growing neighbourhoods. Whereas many Catholic boards were over-enrolled when these fees were last tweaked and have used EDCs as revenue to buy land for new buildings.
The EDC structure should be examined, but not to reward the TDSB for failing to make significant decisions when it comes to how many vacant spaces it has across its schools. There is no other board across Ontario that has been able to afford to avoid making the significant decisions on closures and consolidations to deal with vacant spaces. Step outside the GTA and every board has been making multiple rounds of these difficult, controversial decisions for almost 10 years now.
When I first began writing about school capacity and closures in 2003-04, the TDSB had more vacant pupil spaces in its system than any other board. Eleven years later, I'd eat crow if that's changed.
The problem is a real one -- money spent on maintaining vacant pupil spaces today (even if the hope is they'll be needed in 20 years) is money taken away from servicing the pupil spaces that are occupied today. Meaning it's not being spent on repairs and renos to facilities with higher enrolments. It's not being spent on the programming and staffing. It's being spent on keeping that vacant pupil space available in the inventory.
The point that EDCs should be available for renovation and expansion of existing facilities is a valid one -- if that work is being done in growing areas. An EDC collected for a condo downtown shouldn't be available as a source of funding for renos in a 50-year-old school in Etobicoke. Municipalities are allowed to use their DCs to fund growth-related expansions of facilities and services, that school boards should be able to do so is reasonable.
Before we get there though, a school board's ability to tap into these revenues should be evaluated against its enrolment and whether there is any opportunity to free up funds by rationalizing its vacant pupil places. Absolute zero vacant pupil places is perhaps unreasonable, but until the board with the largest number of these vacant places takes serious action on them, those EDCs should remain out of reach.