Special Report: Education

Inflated Cost Estimates for School Board Buildings

To the list of flaws in the Board policy, we can add the use a flawed methodology for determining the costs associated with their existing non-instructional facilities.

By Mary Louise Pigott
Published February 15, 2012

One of the chief rationales the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has given for initiating what it has dubbed the 'Education Centre Project' is the high cost of maintaining and upgrading its aging non-instructional buildings.

According to a 2007 staff report, replete with loaded language about 'old' buildings (average age 50 years) and imminent 'building failure', the maintenance costs of these buildings was determined using ReCapp (Renewal Capital Asset Planning Process), a Ministry-mandated facilities management software program.

The Ministry mandated its use province-wide in 2005 to ensure consistency in estimated capital renewal costs across all boards.

Unfortunately, as the communities affected by the Dalewood Area Review have discovered, ReCapp is a blunt instrument that bases its building component lifecycle estimates on age alone, with no allowance for quality of materials or construction.

Dalewood Cost Estimate

ReCapp is intended to trigger inspections as building components reach the end of their ReCapp-determined lifecycles.

When it's used to calculate the maintenance and operating costs of existing facilities without the necessary accompanying on-the-ground studies, as it was in the case of the recent Dalewood ARC, it grossly overinflates the costs of keeping older buildings.

In the case of the Dalewood ARC, staff's estimate of the costs of keeping all three schools in our area open were based on ReCapp data.

It included such absurd items as the wholesale replacement of the facade of George R. Allan School (designed by Wm. Palmer Witton, who also designed the James Street Armoury, and one of the finest examples of Collegiate Gothic in the province), terrazzo and hardwood flooring, millwork, ceramics, and glazed wall tiles, and the wholesale replacement of interior staircases.

Even when this list was reduced to critical items, the replacement of the exterior walls and interior stair cases of George R. Allan and Prince Philip Schools remained on the list.

The members of the Dalewood ARC learned that the Ministry now recognizes the limitations of ReCapp and will be implementing a new system over the next few years.

On-The-Ground Assessments

I have seen no indication in the documentation that appears on the board's website, that the ReCapp-based assessments of the board's non-instructional buildings were qualified by on-the-ground assessments of the buildings' actual conditions.

Even if they were, it's not difficult to imagine that dubious items such as the wholesale replacement of historical facades would have remained on the list, as was the case in the Dalewood ARC.

Certainly the tone of the above cited 2007 staff report is not encouraging.

A possible exception may be the Education Centre, which we are told went through an 'independent facility assessment' in addition to the ReCapp assessment. If this assessment has been made public, I am not aware of it.

Flawed Methodology

ReCapp does not cover upgrading costs, but the maintenance and operating costs of the Board's existing non-instructional buildings formed the bulk of staff's estimates of the cost of keeping these buildings.

The use of a flawed methodology for determining those costs calls one of the main rationales for initiating the 'Education Centre Project' into question.

The flaws in the process that led to the choice of the Crestwood side seem to be piling up on an almost daily basis.

We can add to this list the use of a flawed methodology for determining the costs associated with their existing non-instructional facilities.

Betrayal of Public Trust

The limitations of ReCapp may not have been fully appreciated at the time of the initial assessments in 2007, but they are certainly understood now.

It would be a betrayal of the public trust to continue to use these skewed numbers to justify their current course of action at the same time as the Ministry is working to correct its methodology.

The Board is about to take a step that will have an enormous social, economic, and environmental impact on this city for generations to come. It is encumbent upon them to have an unassailable rationale for this course of action.

Why not release the assessment of the Education Centre, and why not wait a little longer until they have the tools to produce a more trustworthy business case?

Mary Louise Pigott is an armchair urbanist and founding member of the Useful Knowledge Society, whose passion for urban neighbourhoods and public spaces occasionally moves her to write.

You can follow her on twitter at @mlhpigott.


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By Myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted February 15, 2012 at 13:14:41

I'd say that I was surprised, but lately I'm just resigned to a high level of foolishness on the part of "the educational establishment" -- there are a few bright lights, but by and large, it's an ossified group that can no longer be trusted to do the right thing.

It's hard to respect an institution that is on the record stomping their feet and covering their eyes and saying "I'm not gonna do what you want." - perhaps we should sit the board down and walk through the way they're treating Hamitonians using their own Restorative Justice program.


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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 15, 2012 at 13:56:28 in reply to Comment 74412

perhaps we should sit the board down and walk through the way they're treating Hamitonians using their own Restorative Justice program.

Heck, I'd be happy if they just lived up to some of their Character Builds character traits.

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By wm.king4@gmail.com (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2012 at 13:59:21

Excellent. This is the kind of research we need if we are really going to make a difference downtown. So much seems to pass the BS meter that shouldn't!

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By wm.king4@gmail.com (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2012 at 14:00:11

Excellent. This is the kind of research we need if we are really going to make a difference downtown. So much seems to pass the BS meter that shouldn't!
Bill King.

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By Wallendda (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2012 at 14:11:52

It really shouldn't be that expensive to build a circus tent.

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By bob lee (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2012 at 17:17:33

great article, kudos to you for digging this up. Use a flawed metric to make a decision and it becomes really easy to blame the metric and not look too closely at its flaws.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted February 16, 2012 at 06:23:45

This is great work Mary, thank you so much for peeling the curtains back.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 16, 2012 at 10:48:32 in reply to Comment 74460

Thanks, mrjanitor. I owe a big hat tip to Dan Jelly who linked to the 2007 report on fb that alerted me to the fact that the $28m in deferred maintenance on non-instructional buildings had been arrived at through a ReCapp audit.

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By Bupkes (anonymous) | Posted March 05, 2012 at 18:37:23

Provincial Entitlements for Capital Priorities Projects, 2011-2012 Fiscal Year

$8,361,064: New Consolidated Elementary School (St. Ann, St. Columba, Holy Spirit)

$7,900,478: Addition to St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School

Evidamente nada por los escuelas publicas de Hamilton en el ano 2011-2012. Que supriso.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 06, 2012 at 10:22:02 in reply to Comment 75036

The Ministry doesn't fund non-instructional facilities. Boards have to finance them themselves, so funding for schools is a separate issue.

The board still has to make a business case that will be acceptable to the Ministry, however. The issue here is that the board used bad numbers to make that case.

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By Bupkes (anonymous) | Posted March 05, 2012 at 18:39:49 in reply to Comment 75036

Escusame: "las escuelas".

Ay que pena!

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted March 02, 2013 at 19:05:59

Renos cost more than new schools
The public school board is paying close to

$19 million to renovate a pair of schools —

$2.5 million more than it would cost to replace them.

On Monday, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees officially approved $18.7 million in repairs and renovations at Dalewood Middle School and G.R. Allan elementary — a move that comes at a time when the board is already strapped for capital cash.

However, data from a 2011 board report shows it would cost less to replace the two west Hamilton facilities entirely.

“The feedback we got from the community is that they wanted to maintain the schools that were there,” board chair Tim Simmons said Friday. “The community spoke and the board listened.”

The rationale, Simmons added, is that it's more economical for the board to carry out structural repairs — what it calls “legacy costs” — at the same time as capital improvements.

Last spring, the board committed $5.8 million to capital projects at the two schools, such as a new gym and classrooms at G.R. Allan, in an accommodation review that will see neighbouring Prince Philip elementary close.

“Because they're old buildings, it doesn't make sense to tear a wall apart to put new wiring in and then take it apart later to do your windows,” he said. “It's not unreasonable to have to do this.”

But some board members disagree with the decision — particularly the project's hefty price tag, which they say came out of left field.

“When there was talk about Dalewood, there was definitely talk about expensive renovations that would be required,” said trustee Karen Turkstra, who resigned from her position as finance subcommittee chair over the issue. “Never was it mentioned that the board would be funding all of those legacy costs, because it can't.”

“When we went through the Dalewood accommodation review, we approved $5.8 million in renovations,” added trustee Todd White. “How did we get an extra $13 million added to this bill? It doesn't make sense.”

Dan Del Bianco, senior facilities manager for the board, said repair costs have always been part of the equation. He said the $13 million represents renewal needs at the two schools 10 years down the road.

“Everybody has always been aware of what the legacy costs at those schools are,” he said. “Those were always captured in the reports.”

There's also the question of funding.

Although the Ministry of Education has committed $3.8 million to the G.R. Allan expansion, the board is on the hook for the balance of the project — around $15 million. Each year, the province doles out just $7 million for capital repairs to be split between the board's 113 schools.

Currently, the board estimates its facilities need around $346 million in deferred maintenance. Dalewood is among a dozen schools in the board considered in “poor condition,” requiring more than

$4 million in repairs.

According to Del Bianco, the plan is to cover the gap through renewal grants and school dispositions. That's also how the board will help fund an additional $81 million in newly approved capital projects, such as a new high school on the Mountain and a major renovation at Highland Secondary in Dundas.

Overall, the board is counting on more than $63 million from the sale of vacant schools and properties to help cover the tab.

“I understand staff's recommendation, that if we've got the walls open, we'll fix some other things. I'm all for that,” said Turkstra. “But we can't fix them all.”

“We're supposed to be big picture people who look at the whole system,” she added.

Although the board has formally approved the plan, Turkstra has requested the education director to provide an in-camera report on the board's ability to fund capital costs associated with accommodation reviews — an additional 14 of which are forthcoming.

The board will consider Turkstra's request later this month.


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