Sunday, January 12, 2014

Toronto schools pay high prices for small jobs

With School Board elections less than a  year away, it's a good time to start reminding ourselves why we need to get rid of many of our school trustees.... 

By: Moira Welsh and Kevin Donovan Staff Reporters, The Toronto Star, Published Jun 21 2012
Here’s what taxpayers were charged for work done at Toronto public schools:
Installing a $17 pencil sharpener: $143 to put in four screws.
The installation of a sign on a school’s front lawn: $19,000
An electrical outlet on the wall in a school library: $3,000
A “breakfast club” kitchen: $250,000
When the librarian at the electrical outlet school saw the bill she hit the roof, wondering at “the number of books that could have been purchased with $3000.”
A Star investigation has found examples of charges that are out of whack with the amount of work done. The work in question was carried out by some of the 900-strong maintenance and construction trades people who have an exclusive contract with the Toronto District School Board. In the case of the electrical plug, the job took four hours, but taxpayers were billed 76 hours, which sources say was done to account for the time of idle workers who had no assignments that week.
Principals, trustees and parents say that much needed work on Toronto’s aging schools is not getting done. Principals were terrified of repercussions from their management and the union and would not go on the record for this story. Some who have complained say they have been threatened by the union with losing their jobs if they speak up.
Union boss Jimmy Hazel, when first asked about these high costs two weeks ago, unleashed a stream of profanity at a Star reporter.
“We don’t need to f------ prove anything to anybody about costs,” Hazel said. “A s---load more work was done to justify the cost of that plug job I can tell you.”
The TDSB’s chief facilities officer, Angelos Bacopoulos, said in an interview that the board realizes they have a serious problem.
“How widespread it is, I do not know,” Bacopoulos said.
He is trying to fix the system, but faces opposition from the union. The contract with the union expires this August and negotiations will begin in September, a TDSB spokesperson said.
{Update: the Provincial Liberal government went over the head of the Toronto Board and renewed basically the same sweetheart deal with the same scuzzy unions.}
Each year, principals at the almost 600 public schools across Toronto submit requests to get work done. Under a longstanding agreement with Jimmy Hazel’s Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council, almost all of that work must be performed by its members, who are TDSB employees. Projects larger than $1.5 million, or those requiring special skills, can only be done by companies whose workers are part of affiliated unions.
Principals are given budgets for repairs at their school and are asked to prioritize the work.
When the call came in early 2012 to install a new electrical outlet in the library (the librarian wanted to plug in a projector and create a new “learning space” for students) at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, it seemed like an easy request. Since it involved electrical work, union rules required two TDSB electricians to be dispatched. The job, which involved attaching a plug to the library wall and then running cable through the suspended ceiling to an electrical panel, took two hours (four person hours in total).
TDSB emails show about $2,000 was refunded to the school’s account after the principal complained.
A source with knowledge of this project told the Star that the four person hour electrical outlet job was padded with 72 additional hours to justify paying the salary of other electricians who had no work to do. The source also told the Star that Hazel has now determined that he has too many electricians, and as many as seven have recently been laid off.
At the Toronto Catholic District School Board, a school system about half the size of the public board, only 70 workers are employed full-time. Other work is contracted out. Spokesperson Angelo Sangiorgio said it would not “make sense” to employ more because there is not enough plumbing or electrical work to keep trades people busy.
Another job the Star looked into involved installing a pencil sharpener at Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate in 2009. The school purchased the sharpener at Grand and Toy at a cost of $17.
Principals and custodial staff have long been told that Hazel’s union must do the bulk of the work at schools. The principal at the school, Rick Tarasuk, requested installation of the sharpener and a crew was sent out by the TDSB. The sharpener has five screws. It was installed with only four screws under a bookshelf.
Tarasuk was shocked at the cost and raised the issue at a meeting of east end principals. TDSB director Chris Spence was in attendance and vowed to have the charge reversed.
Later, when the Star asked Hazel why it cost $143 to install the pencil sharpener, Hazel passed on TDSB emails that labelled the charge a “clerical error.” Sources say Hazel then called school Tarasuk and threatened to use his influence to have him fired. Hazel told the popular principal he would do this by “going upstairs” to the school’s board of directors. Hazel told the Star in an email this week that while “I can’t have anyone fired,” he is going to talk to TDSB director Spence and complain about Tarasuk because he thinks the principal’s conduct could rate “termination” in most workplaces.
The TDSB has told the Star that it has now sent a message out to school caretakers (who work for a different union) instructing them that they may install pencil sharpeners.

And at the school board, this is what they call progress.

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