Editor’s note. This article originally appeared on The Trillium. A new Village Media site dedicated to covering provincial politics and Queen’s Park.
Dozens of child-care projects are in limbo after several school boards said a recent offer from the province to increase funding to build these spaces just won’t cut it.
Three school boards have told The Trillium they don’t have enough money for the previously approved projects even after the government recently offered “25 per cent additional funding.”
The government’s “final” offer comes amid dialogue between the school boards and the province that has seen each side accuse the other of delays and boards saying they need more funding to build the centres.
Even with a funding boost, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said it would still need up to $100 million for its nearly 30 projects.
“While the offer of additional funding from the ministry is certainly helpful, it still does not come close to covering the total cost of these child-care projects,” TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said. “We’re willing to put some money toward it, but we cannot possibly make up the complete shortfall amounting to millions of dollars … for these projects.”
The board’s response followed a Nov. 21 letter from Kate Manson-Smith, deputy minister of education, to TDSB chair Rachel Chernos Lin, saying that none of the board’s 28 projects, 27 of which were approved more than five years ago, “were aligned with the board’s estimated project completion timelines” and that the education ministry hadn’t received approval to proceed requests for 11 of them.
“None of these projects have begun construction and all are reporting significant cost overages,” wrote Manson-Smith, adding that the 25 per cent in additional funding was aimed at getting the projects moving, but that the board would have to use “other funding sources” for any additional money that’s needed.
Chernos Lin said the board has committed an additional $14 million through proceeds of disposition for 17 of the projects in underserved areas. She wrote a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Nov. 1 saying there were “significant delays” in getting ministry approvals for these projects, leading to increased costs, as The Trillium previously reported.
On Tuesday, Chernos Lin said the board would be short $43 million for these 17 priority projects after a funding boost from the province and the proceeds of disposition.
“The math doesn’t add up,” said Chernos Lin. “This would result in us paying over 50 per cent of the cost of building those child cares, that’s not our core mandate and that just doesn’t seem right when child care is the province’s responsibility, not the board’s responsibility.”
Bird said the TDSB identified early on in the process that there was not enough funding for the projects, even on “pared-down” designs.
“There has to be the necessary time to actually design them, it’s not just receive the money and turn it around and build an addition, there is a process that you have to follow,” he said.
According to the board, the TDSB waited for 18 months to two years to get approval to tender, which it did for four projects last year to gauge pricing after the pandemic, but even the lower bids were “significantly over” the approved funding. The board said it took this to the ministry last summer, but that the offer for additional funding didn’t come until a year later.
Asked about the delays the TDSB said it experienced in getting government approvals, Lecce said many of the projects “precede my time in office and the government” and that the ministry has cut approval times by half.
The board said it is now waiting for “further direction from the ministry.”
Meanwhile, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) said it has 20 child-care projects that have been approved, but that construction hasn’t started for any.
“Half are awaiting Approval to Proceed from the Ministry, others are in final costing phases, in design, construction documentation and ready to submit to the Ministry,” board spokesperson Shazia Vlahos wrote in an email.
She said the projects have “exceeded approved funding amounts by up to 100 per cent” due to increased construction costs and pre-pandemic funding allocations.
“Unfortunately, we do not have a revenue source to fund these child-care projects (and) doing so would lead to a reduction in funding for student learning and other related programs,” Vlahos said.
She confirmed the board has also received an offer for a 25 per cent boost, but said “this is not sufficient to cover any of the 20 projects previously approved by the Ministry.”
It was a similar story with the Peel District School Board (PDSB).
The board said construction hadn’t started on child-care projects that were approved in March 2021 for Shaw Public School, Agnes Taylor Public School and Cashmere Public School.
“We anticipate an additional $7-$8 million may be required before construction begins due to updated cost estimates for the work,” spokesperson Malon Edwards said in an email.
He said the ministry also offered the board a 25 per cent increase in capital funding, but that PDSB “has advised the Ministry of Education that our school board and the Region of Peel are unable to identify sufficient funds to proceed with these child-care projects.”
He said the board would continue working with the ministry on capital funding projects including child care and that PDSB looks forward to investments “for current and future school projects and the new child-care spaces that will provide families in our school communities with the needed support for their children to put them on the path for academic success.”
The education ministry also sent a letter to the TCDSB on Nov. 21, similar to the one it sent the TDSB on the same day.
The letters, obtained by The Trillium, both said that while the government values working with partners like school boards, “at the risk of not meeting 2026 timelines in association with Ontario’s commitments under the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care (CWELCC) agreement to create thousands of new affordable child care spaces, the ministry is eager to explore alternate arrangements.”
Asked by The Trillium what this meant and whether private operators would get the funding if school boards couldn’t build the centres, the education minister said the money would stay within the child-care system.
“It will be used for public purposes, be it in schools or other supports to expand affordable spaces,” said Lecce at an unrelated announcement at St. Demetrius Catholic School in Etobicoke on Tuesday morning.
“We’re willing to work in good faith with them to get to a suitable outcome, but we also have a duty to protect the tax dollars, and when a project hasn’t come online for, in some cases for seven, eight years and it’s now 100, 200, 300 per cent more than where we started, I think taxpayers would like us to demonstrate some responsibility for their dollars,” he said.
The minister called the “co-location” of child-care centres in schools a “strength,” saying it makes drop-offs easier for families and that the province is on track to build 10,000 new spaces in schools.
“Beyond these 28, there are literally hundreds that have approval to build child-care expansions since 2018,” he said, referencing the TDSB projects. “But at the end of the day, if we can increase spaces in their community, it may be at the plaza across the street from St. Demetrius, or in St. Demetrius, but as long as we’re adding affordable capacity to communities to reduce the wait list and help parents get access to affordable child care, I think we are achieving our objective, and we’re doing so in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Lecce told The Trillium last week that the latest offer was a “final 25 per cent.”
“It’s up to them now to make that decision, we’ll respect it and while they do their thing, we’re going to keep building child care in a much quicker fashion,” he said, adding that the government will develop a plan once it hears from the TDSB.
“One way or another, we’re going to be building more spaces for the families of Toronto,” he said, adding that the city would receive a “healthy share for under-represented communities.”
Chernos Lin said she believes having child-care centres in schools, a “seamless day model,” is beneficial, and that she hopes the parties can find a way forward. She said she has a meeting scheduled with the education minister this week to discuss the issue.
“I think it’s incumbent on the province to step up and help us get these built,” she said.
-With files from Jessica Smith Cross