Horizon School Division has already begun work on Auditor’s recommendations

The Horizon School Division is welcoming the recommendations of provincial auditor Judy Ferguson after her report was released Tuesday. According to director of education Kevin Garinger they already began to implement the recommendations after Ferguson visited the division in 2019.

“We would say at Horizon School Division that we welcome the Auditor’s Report and we certainly accept the recommendations,” Garinger said.

“So I commend the Provincial Auditor for her work and the work of her staff. It helps us move forward and essentially continue to look deeply at the work that is being done and make sure that the reporting processes, which is a main function needed to be centred around, it’s more that there is more accountability making sure that those systems are closing the loop on the work that is being done,”Garinger said.

According to Garinger, since Ferguson visited the division in September of 2019 the facility staff have been implementing the necessary process changes throughout the facilities.

“We have been in the process of making those implemented changes to reporting practices and documentation and performing the regular updates to the central information system where necessary and where recommended by the auditor.”

The school division owns and operates 38 schools and four other facilities in 30 communities, including Humboldt, Watrous, Lanigan, Kelvington and Wynyard. Auditor Judy Ferguson said Horizon did not fully utilize its facilities maintenance budget over the past three years, and has an estimated deferred maintenance of more than $70-million.

“I would say that it is a very large implementation to transfer data into the core information system and that work has been ongoing since September when the Auditor was her so I think that’s certainly positive. As I said with those recommendations we anticipate that they will be completed for the start of 2021 school year,” Garinger said.

The auditor’s office has completed roughly a dozen maintenance audits in various departments and sectors, and Ferguson said they’ve identified “significant areas of concern” every time.

“Somehow as an office, we’re not being successful in getting the message out on the importance of effective maintenance,” she said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Ferguson identified fire protection, fire suppression and boilers as primary areas of concern. She reported seven sprinkler systems and 19 fire alarm systems that had unrepaired deficiencies more than a year after those problems were first reported.

Garinger said the issue was the reports hadn’t been updated. The work, he said, had been done.

The staff simply weren’t closing the loop on it,” he said.

“We already implemented those changes.”

There were also 23 preventative maintenance items that were not inspected properly. Those items include playgrounds and school boilers. Ferguson said there were no documented reasons why this was the case.

According to Garinger, they have been using their Preventative Maintenance and Renewal (PMR) and other dollars since he came aboard as director in 2014 to support maintenance.

“We have taken additional money and we have directed them towards the maintenance of our facilities. So we have done significant roof projects and that sort of thing early on in my tenure. And, of course, we only had so much surplus to be able to deal with that of course we restricted that just specifically for that purpose,” Garinger said.

He explained that they utilize the PMR but always have carryover because of the difference between year-end for government and school divisions and the carryover is necessary.

“I mean a roof project can cost upwards of a million dollars or more, so one roof on one school that you don’t see has significant impact on. It’s not lovely and that kind of thing but it is necessary to keep our buildings moving forward,” he added.

The audit found that staff had not properly documented the status of more than 20 per cent of all outstanding maintenance requests, and key information in the school division’s IT system was unchanged since 2017.

However the audit still presents some work for Horizon.

“That said I would also say that audit is always an exciting opportunity to look deeply at our existing process and have them looked at from an outside perspective so we appreciate the Provincial Auditor and the work that was done to our system so that we can make sure that some of these things that we need to put in place will help us grow as a system,” he said.

Ferguson said Horizon also needs to do a better job of maintaining up to date and accurate information about planned maintenance, completed projects and current facility conditions. She said it’s difficult to tell how effectively current maintenance spending is without that information.

“Overall, Horizon needs to step back and determine if it is doing the right maintenance, and enough maintenance, to move its facilities to a satisfactory condition,” she explained.

The report shows 87 per cent of Horizon’s schools are more than 50 years old and, on average, in poor condition. Ferguson said this is in line with the provincial average.

The division has nine full-time equivalent maintenance employees with suitable qualifications, and spends, on average, $3-million to maintain its facilities.

Garinger explained that when he appears in front of the Public Accounts Committee he will be able to say that timelines for implementation have already happened. The entire problem was that the planning was there and projects were completed but they did not complete the process of filing the completed projects.

“So the information system didn’t speak to that not because it hadn’t been updated by our staff but that is a practice piece that needed to be implemented. It was not that the work wasn’t being completed, I think that is a fair thing to say. It’s a challenge to say well it didn’t get done when, in fact, the work was being done the staff simply weren’t closing the loop on it. Like I said we already implemented those changes,” he said.

Ferguson said school maintenance problems are not limited to Horizon School Division. She said all school divisions should know what maintenance standard their buildings should meet, how much maintenance costs, and properly track current conditions and planned projects. Ferguson said she’s not sure how many Saskatchewan school divisions actually do this.

The provincial government has built 57 new schools and approved 23 major school renovation projects since 2008.

-With files from Jason Kerr, Prince Albert Daily Herald