It’s time to clear the repair backlog in schools
For many years, parents in my community worried and complained about the physical conditions of our local public schools. However, we were not sure what we could do to improve the situation.
We were concerned about the visible disrepair such as peeling paint and old, inefficient windows. We were equally concerned about the invisible disrepair that likely lurked beneath the surface and could potentially be more serious. We were also concerned about the school conditions that seemed to be accepted as “normal” when, in fact, they were entirely unacceptable. For instance, my son, his classmates, and their teacher all wore winter coats at school for more than a week one winter because their classroom was only 12 degrees Celsius.
Eventually, we began to think that parent activism might play a role in positively impacting local school conditions. And so, with equal parts optimism and naivete, a small group of parents began meeting in April 2014 to discuss disrepair in Toronto’s public schools. From the start, we committed to being solution-oriented, non-partisan, parent-led, and we held a vision that:
• every publicly funded school in Ontario should be a safe, healthy, well-maintained building that provided an environment conducive to learning and working;
• publicly funded schools should be considered and treated as critical public infrastructure.
We officially launched the Fix Our Schools campaign in October 2014. By May 2015, we had built a network of close to 1,000 people across Toronto. At the start of our campaign, we believed that disrepair and poor conditions were a problem unique to Toronto schools. However, within our first year, we realized that disrepair and poor conditions impacted all 72 of Ontario’s publicly funded school boards. In fact, we unearthed that, as of 2015, there was a $15-billion repair backlog in Ontario schools. And so, we committed to expanding beyond Toronto to become an Ontario-wide campaign.
With this bit of early history shared, we will now highlight some of our notable successes as a campaign, our approach to advocacy, and some of our key insights and how those have informed our advocacy. We will also underscore the importance of political activism.
The Fix Our Schools campaign has been instrumental in achieving the following successes:
1. Convinced the provincial government to increase funding for school repairs and renewal from $150-million/year in 2014 to $1.4-billion/year in June 2016, and to maintain this level of annual funding every budget cycle since 2016 despite ongoing threats of provincial funding cuts.
2. Obtained transparency into school disrepair data, with Facility Condition Index (FCI)/disrepair data first being published by the Ministry of Education in September 2016 and updated in October 2017. Unfortunately, the Ford government has not continued this level of transparency into school repair backlog details, and only provides the overall school repair backlog total when questioned each year.
3. Secured the commitment of 58 MPPs elected to Ford’s first provincial government to develop a standard of good repair for Ontario schools and to provide the adequate, stable funding needed to achieve those standards and eliminate the repair backlog in Ontario’s schools.
OUR APPROACH TO ADVOCACY
After realizing in 2015 that Fix Our Schools needed to expand to become an Ontario-wide campaign, we worked to build upon our Toronto base of support. We attended school, ward, and board meetings; we actively engaged in community outreach; we ran social media campaigns; we sent e-newsletters; and we built relationships with large, organized groups whose interests aligned with those of Fix Our Schools—such as OSSTF/FEESO, other unions, and other parent organizations. Our goal was to create a large, connected network of people across Ontario who shared our vision of safe, healthy, well-maintained schools, and who could collectively work to create pressure for positive change.
With a meaningful base of support established, we were able to build relationships with all political parties and across many levels of government to raise our issues, present our arguments, and provide our ideas for positive change. Central to our approach was establishing relationships with the Premier’s Office because we wanted the funding increase for school repairs and renewal to come from an increase in the overall funding to the Ministry of Education, and not from clawing back funding for other important education priorities. We were also able to garner media attention to show the disrepair in Ontario schools and highlight solutions.
We gathered facts and figures, developing reasonable arguments for why more funding was needed for school repair and renewal, for why transparency into disrepair details was crucial, for why schools were critical public infrastructure, and for why standards of good repair were needed. At the same time, we collected personal stories and photographs that illustrated the many negative impacts of disrepair and poor school conditions at a more personal level. We found that the facts and figures were important, but that the stories and photos touched people’s emotions and created more of a desire to make positive change.
Working with the provincial government led by Kathleen Wynne, we achieved our notable successes. We were able to leverage our large base of support to create the pressure needed for them to make big changes in funding and transparency. Admittedly, working with the provincial government led by Doug Ford has been challenging. The only success we’ve been able to achieve under this provincial government has been to protect the $1.4-billion/year funding for school repairs and renewal. We have found the Ford government to be arrogant, unwilling to listen to or work with stakeholders, and to consistently view our public schools and education system as a very low priority.
KEY INSIGHTS THAT INFORMED OUR ADVOCACY
We gleaned several key insights early on in our campaign that informed our advocacy work and our calls to action:
1. Ontario’s provincial government must provide adequate, stable funding for school repair and renewal. In 1998, Mike Harris’ PC government amalgamated school boards and implemented a new funding formula, with school boards relying exclusively on the provincial government for funding. In 2002, the Rozanski report, commissioned by the PC government, identified that $5.6-billion of disrepair had accumulated in Ontario’s publicly funded schools since the provincial government took over education funding.
Furthermore, the Rozanski report identified that the yearly funding provided by the provincial government to school boards for school repairs and renewal was less than 1% of the value of the current replacement value of schools, even though established industry standards recommended that governments provide a minimum of 1.5% – 4% of the current facility replacement value of a building for repair and renewal needs each year.
The Liberal governments that held power for the 15 years after the Rozanski report allowed disrepair in Ontario’s schools to triple to $15.9-billion. In fact, when the Fix Our Schools campaign began in 2014, provincial funding for school repairs and renewal was a mere $150-million/year, approximately one-tenth of the $1.4-billion/year that industry standards suggested was the bare minimum that school boards needed to be able to complete routine repairs and maintenance.
As stated earlier as a notable success, in June 2016, the provincial government did substantially increase the annual funding for school repair and renewal to the $1.4 billion/year that was recommended as the bare minimum according to industry standards. However, while this significant increase was welcomed, this level of provincial funding was never going to make up for the almost 20 years when provincial funding was a mere fraction of what it ought to have been and during which time $15.9-billion of disrepair was allowed to accumulate in Ontario’s schools.
Certainly, we have seen this to be true. Since the current Ford PC government came to power in 2018, we’ve seen a continued year-over-year increase in the school repair backlog, despite the ongoing $1.4-billion/year funding for repairs and renewal of schools. As of June 2021, the school repair backlog was $16.8-billion total.
Fix Our Schools has urged successive provincial governments to provide adequate, stable funding for these important public assets called schools, and to allocate at least an additional $1.6-billion/year. Only when provincial funding is stable and adequate will we have a hope of achieving schools that are safe, healthy, and well-maintained, and that provide environments conducive to learning and working.
2. A Standard of Good Repair for Ontario’s publicly funded schools must be developed and implemented. These standards need to clearly articulate the acceptable state of school buildings, portables, and schoolyards, and to include the metrics that will be collected to demonstrate that standards are met. These standards and the associated metrics must include and address:
• the $16.8-billion of disrepair in school buildings;
• a program to assess current repair backlogs in portables and schoolyards;
• air quality and ventilation;
• classroom temperatures;
• environmental efficiency & durability;
• drinking water;
• classroom space;
• vermin, mold;
• fire and electrical code.
Without a defined and commonly understood standard and associated metrics for what conditions are acceptable in Ontario’s school buildings, portables, and schoolyards, there is no reasonable way to assess the success in meeting the standards.
3. Ontario’s provincial government must release annual updates on school disrepair data, and start collecting and releasing transparent metrics for portables and schoolyards at regular intervals. Beginning in 2011, Ontario’s provincial government started engaging independent, third-party engineers to inspect each school in the province once every five years. These engineers review the essential structures and systems of a school. They also assess the wear and tear to building interiors. It has been through this process that the repair backlog for Ontario’s schools has been determined and updated.
Up until 2016, the provincial government never publicly shared the findings of these school inspections. Fix Our Schools believed that having transparency into school disrepair data was important. We felt that if people knew the details of the repair backlog at schools in their community, they would be far more politically engaged than if they only know the large, amorphous total repair backlog figure for all Ontario schools. Therefore, we created significant pressure on the provincial government and ultimately convinced the Ministry of Education to begin releasing disrepair data on a school-by-school basis in 2016. Unfortunately, November 2017 was the last time that the provincial government updated and released this disrepair data. Since Premier Ford was elected in 2018, there has been a disappointing lack of transparency.
To measure the outcomes of provincial funding for school infrastructure, our provincial government must continue to collect and publicly release disrepair data for every publicly funded school building in Ontario. Fix Our Schools also has advocated for our provincial government to start collecting and sharing disrepair data for portables and schoolyards.
THE IMPORTANCE OF POLITICAL ACTIVISM
As you well know, there is great power in collective action. At Fix Our Schools, we’ve experienced that power many times since 2014. We remember the first journalist we met with, and her skepticism about us being able to get any traction at all with making change on an issue as “unsexy” as school infrastructure. And then, we remember meeting with this same journalist many years later. She was amazed at how we had grown and sustained our campaign. She was also impressed with the successes we had achieved through slowly building a committed base of support, taking collective action to build pressure, and using a solution-oriented, non-partisan approach.
We recognize that school conditions are only one aspect of our education system. We also recognize the amazing things that go on inside classrooms every day, despite the poor physical conditions of many schools. This is a testament to teachers and education workers. We thank you for your commitment to Ontario’s students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how critical schools and education are to Ontario’s children, their families, and our economy. With this in mind, we encourage each of you to please subscribe to Fix Our Schools to receive periodic emails with information and ideas for action: www.fixourschools.ca/joinus/. And, we encourage OSSTF/FEESO Members to continue to be politically active on other key education priorities. Your collective action in the coming months and years will be critical to our public schools and education system.