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Province promises more funding to TDSB for stalled child-care projects amid finger-pointing over delays and funding shortfalls

Construction has not yet begun on 27 school-based child-care projects after more than five years, the government says
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce walks through an Etobicoke library, before speaking to the media, in Toronto, on April 16, 2023.

The province is promising more money for the Toronto District School Board after the board said "significant delays" in government approvals and a "funding shortfall" have put more than a dozen child-care projects — estimated to create more than 1,000 spots in "underserved" communities — on hold. 

The province, however, is pointing fingers at the board for a lack of progress on these and other child-care projects. 

The Progressive Conservative government's offer came Monday after The Trillium asked the education minister's office for comment on the issue.

Canada's largest school board voiced its concerns about delays and funding in a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce that was posted on the board's website on Nov. 1.

"This has effectively led to a generation of children being denied access to integrated child care in schools," Rachel Chernos Lin, chair of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), wrote. 

The board said there are "significant inequities" in child-care services across Toronto, with gaps in areas like Scarborough and the city's northwest. 

"One of the biggest stumbling blocks to rectifying these discrepancies is the significant delays in obtaining Ministry approvals to proceed (ATP) to tender for 17 of the child care projects in underserved areas of our system," Chernos Lin wrote. "These delays have not only led to increased costs but have also hampered our efforts to bridge and close the child-care gap in affected communities."

According to the TDSB, the 17 child-care centres in question were part of a larger group of 28 projects that were approved by the government in 2017. The board said it pledged more funding for the construction of these 17 centres in 2020, but that "significant additional funding" from the government is needed. 

The 17 child-care centres, which would be housed inside schools, have been held up at different stages of the process, said Chernos Lin. This process, she said, involves the government announcing funding for child-care centres, the TDSB working with the city to determine where the greatest need is, the government approving the projects and outlining the amount of money it'll provide for each one, and then the board developing cost estimates for each project.

Chernos Lin said if the cost estimate is more than the approved funding, the board would then need to find additional funds, such as money from the sale of TDSB properties, or ask the government for more.

And then there's the tendering process, which the board chair said for the projects that have reached that far, are coming back with higher cost estimates "because there's been so many delays in getting to that step."

"Part of the challenge is that the benchmarks (the ministry has set) are too low for us, but also all the delays combined with inflation has meant that we're just constantly having to go back to seek approval to proceed and we don't have enough funding to build them," Chernos Lin told The Trillium.

She said while the TDSB has committed an additional $14 million through proceeds of disposition for the projects, typically these funds would be used to fix or replace the board's aging infrastructure. 

Chernos Lin said the delays have meant several years of waiting for some communities. 

"These are not large additions, they shouldn't take so long to build, that's many years without a community having child care co-located in their schools for a seamless day model," she said, adding that having child-care centres inside schools has been a priority for the government. 

"We know that when child-care professionals work in partnership with schools to provide that seamless, high-quality programming for children throughout the day, It's a more stable environment for kids, there's fewer transitions, it's easier for families, the school becomes a hub," Chernos Lin said, adding that fewer transitions can mean greater student success.

She said it comes down to equity and it shouldn't be that some areas have easier access to programming for kids than others.

"The fact that it seems to be most problematic in areas that are traditionally underserved is an even more significant reason as to why we need these built," said Chernos Lin. She said many of these areas have families that are racialized and are "struggling socio-economically." 

The government agreed on the need to ensure "high-quality, affordable child care and early years programs to families in every corner of the province," but suggested the board was dragging its feet. 

"In August 2023, the Ministry of Education (ministry) sent communication to your board regarding 28 previously approved child care projects, totalling 2,035 licensed spaces. None of these projects have begun construction and all are reporting significant cost overages," Kate Manson-Smith, deputy minister of education, wrote in a Nov. 21 letter to Chernos Lin that was obtained by The Trillium.

"In an effort to work together to ensure these subsidized spaces can be accessed in the near future to benefit the communities that need them most and to mitigate further delays on these projects, the ministry is committed to providing 25% additional funding on top of the existing approved capital funding allocation," Manson-Smith wrote, adding that the board would need to use "other funding sources" for any additional money that's needed.

Manson-Smith said that none of the 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 ministry hadn't received approval to proceed requests for 11 of them. 

"We understand the school board had every intent to build these projects; however, the projects have not been progressing enough to be completed on time or on budget. It is imperative that these child care spaces are opened and available to their communities," Manson-Smith wrote. 

Speaking to The Trillium before the Nov. 21 letter from the government, Chernos Lin said her concern was whether these projects still had the government's support behind them. 

"We are really hoping that the delays in approval to proceed are not because the ministry has ... abandoned their commitment to these projects," she said. 

Manson-Smith wrote in her letter 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."

The exchanges between the TDSB and the province come as the PC government works to implement a $10-a-day child-care program through the CWELCC funding deal with the federal government. 

Under the agreement, Ontario has committed to creating 86,000 new child-care spots, from 2019 levels, by the end of 2026. The deal is aimed at bringing child-care fees down to an average of $10 a day, which the province has said it wants to do by September 2025. So far, fees have already been reduced by around 50 per cent for families at centres enrolled in the program. 

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