Contracts, agreements and unions bind everything that can be bought, sold or owned by Toronto District School Board (TDSB) institutions. These contracts are supposed to lower costs for schools and the rest of the Board for necessary purchases, but do they really?
Costs are usually higher for many items, report many curriculum leaders. “I could have got a DVD player for less than $100,” says Mr. Jones, curriculum leader of the Jarvis science department, “and it certainly came out to more than $160 through the board.”
Mr. Gold, Jarvis's Principal, reports that this is a common issue at monthly meetings that principals attend in order to report their experiences with board policies. “I can tell you that at principals’ meetings we talk about this pretty often because we’d like to understand. It’s explained to us why we’re only allowed purchasing through these places and what the benefits are, but we don’t know if we’re actually capturing any savings.”
The overall cost of certain merchandise for schools is more expensive than elsewhere. Contracts mean that companies don’t have to compete, and that the school is bound to their prices. For example, volatile markets like computers and other electronics, which are essential in today’s classroom, have price fluctuations almost daily. School price-lists are not updated daily, so they are not benefiting from the lowest possible prices.
Two identical computers offered from Dell – one through the TDSB on a price-list created on the 25th of January, 2006, and the other through Dell’s Education sector website, taken February 3rd, 2006– show marginal price differences, none of which are in favour of the Board’s contract. Direct from the company website, a Dell Optiplex GX520 costs $1357.00 (before taxes), while through the Board, the same machine costs $1365.48 (before taxes).
In response to this cost difference, Mr. Gold said: “We are a board of 500 schools. What I’d want to be explained to me better is, ‘Why aren’t we capturing tremendous savings with that purchasing power? I shouldn’t be able to do better as an individual [school or person] than in a system of over 500 schools. We purchased 60 computers last year alone; multiply that by 500 and we’re talking huge amounts of purchasing.”
The board, then, clearly isn’t capturing any savings. A Dell service centre contract has been made which gives each computer a 7-year service guarantee. Purchasing a similar plan costs well over $600 per computer from Dell’s website. But this cost is separate from the actual cost of the computer hardware.
Some students feel 7 years is a long time to be keeping these computers around. Daniel Khan, a Grade 11 Jarvis student, said, “When I think back to the computer I was using 7 years ago, and I think about trying to use it for anything other than keeping my door open, I get a cold, dark feeling.”
The average lifespan of a computer, given the constant improvement of technology, is 3 years (PCWorld.com), and Jarvis computers are aging. The wait time to just log on to a computer is the clearest evidence of this point. “When I come in in the morning, I enter my login information on the computer, go out to get my coffee, and come back 20 minutes later when the computer is just about finished starting up,” said Mr. Bartha, a Jarvis guidance counsellor.
Hardware is also rarely the problem. As Mr. Gold reports, “Most of the notifications we put in are software related or equipment that’s past warranty.” Software problems are usually repaired directly by the Board’s Enterprise Helpdesk via the TDSB network without anyone having to make a visit, and Board technicians repair out-of-warranty computers. The 7-year service plan thus is more of a failsafe insurance policy for the few computers that do actually break within its duration.
Computer prices is just one example of the problems with the TDSB purchasing plan. Labour is also warranted, as Mr. Jones recounts. “We’ve been waiting for a lock on an office door for a long time. It’s not like having someone come to your house where they arrange a date; they do it when they have time. The only way to get things done quickly is if you say, ‘There’s something poisonous in there,’ or something along those lines.”
There is also a time factor relevant to the school schedule. “One of our classrooms is missing an overhead projection screen. I put in an order to have one installed in September and it took until February for it to be installed,” says Mr. Jones.
Clearly there’s a problem with the system the board has in place. Some Jarvis staff believe the problem is a consequence of the size of the board itself, and the problems arising from the amalgamation of regional boards into the TDSB. This may account for the long wait times for getting things done, but not for the extra costs involved in buying goods and services.
The TDSB has an obligation to students to create the best possible education environment it can. Departments need to be able to purchase items at the lowest possible cost to them because of limited budgets. “It’s not like I have a $50,000 science budget for the year,” stated Mr. Jones. If products that are today essential to learning or maintaining the school environment are not being acquired at the lowest possible expense, it’s really the students who pay in the end.