The headlines were alarming. “Ford government cancels $100M school repair fund,” read the Toronto Star. The headline on the CBC’s website was virtually identical (with “Ontario government” replacing “Ford government”). The implication was clear: Ontario’s newly sworn-in premier is already cutting — and one of his first targets is kids.
And the headlines were accurate … to an extent. But the concern was misplaced, overlooking a much larger problem.
It’s true that Doug Ford’s government has cut a $100-million program to fund “green” upgrades to the province’s nearly 5,000 publicly funded schools. The $100-million “Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund” was part of the nearly $2 billion in annual revenue being collected through the province’s cap-and-trade program, which Ontario is wisely abandoning. Ford isn’t targeting schools specifically. He scrapped the fund, and all others funded by cap-and-trade revenues — since those revenues will cease to exist — just as he openly campaigned on doing before winning his majority government.
But those click-bait headlines actually miss the bigger, more troubling picture: that $100 million a year to, among other things, fit schools with solar panels is nothing compared to the $15-billion backlog in necessary upkeep at Ontario’s schools. That’s not a typo: the Ministry of Education says schools are awaiting $15 billion (with a “b”) in total repairs. The $100 million a year represents less than 0.7 per cent of that total.
That’s the real scandal here. Even if the serious repairs required are just, say, half that, at $7.5 billion, or the critical ones yet another half, it is still evident that previous governments allowed Ontario’s schools to severely deteriorate. The province could spend billions on infrastructure and get out of it not a single new road, bridge or kilometre of rail, just to keep its schools from falling apart. The depth of the problem is scandalous: in 2015, the province’s auditor general concluded that the province wasn’t even adequately tracking its repair needs, let alone addressing them. Despite all the many billions borrowed and spent by the former Liberal government, the province’s most important assets are nevertheless crumbling, dragging down Ontario’s productivity and competitiveness. Where did all those vast sums of money go?
This is the problem Premier Ford now faces: how to kick-start an economy while also literally repairing a province run into the ground by the Liberals. Obviously cutting a $100-million fund won’t get him closer to fixing any schools. But by eliminating the economically damaging carbon taxes that paid it, Ford can help make sure that, in the long run, Ontario’s schools will have more money for more important things than solar panels.
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