Cash-strapped school boards across Ontario are being asked to consider building modular schools in an effort to save on construction costs—money that the Progressive Conservative government says can be re-directed to front-line services.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently announced a 10-year, $13 billion investment in the Capital Priorities program, which allows school boards to renovate, fix or build entirely new schools.

In a memo sent to school boards, the Ministry of Education also unveiled a modular construction pilot project—pre-fabricated schools that would be built in a factory-type setting and then assembled on location.

“School boards are encouraged to identify opportunities to use modular construction methods,” the memo reads. “The ministry will work with those boards to further develop those opportunities as appropriate.”

Lecce tells CTV News Toronto the concept of modulating provincial schools is “simply about saving money,” but adds that the savings could be re-invested.

“If they’re saving 10, 15, 20 per cent per build, that’s the incentive,” Lecce says.

“They’re able to realize greater savings in construction costs, they’re able to utilize those funds as a board for better or different purposes, including front-line investments.”

University of Toronto civil engineering professor Tamer El-Diraby says while some compare modular construction to IKEA — where parts are provided and only have to be assembled — school boards could see significant savings.

“The idea is that instead of building these things (on location) under the elements, in the weather, in the heat, you are building it in a factory,” El-Diraby says, adding construction in a controlled setting can continue during the winter months.

“Mass production in the context of a school will be beneficial because you typically have the same settings for classes and also because of the increased efficiency in factories.”

School boards in York, Peel and Toronto have relied on modular construction in the past, but primarily for additions to schools.

Capital costs reduced

The Ford government is being criticized for reducing the overall budget for the Capital Priorities program by $3 billion at a time when the school board repair backlog stands at $16 billion.

The previous Liberal government, under Kathleen Wynne, promised to spend $16 billion over the next decade on school repairs in the 2018 budget. Ford’s fiscal document, tabled in April, cut that amount down to $13 billion.

The Ontario New Democratic Party says chronic underinvestment dating back to the Mike Harris PC government has left students in school that are in a state of disrepair.

“Kids should not be going to school with hats and mitts on in the winter and sweltering in the spring and fall,” NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles told CTV News Toronto. “We need to make sure that our children have a great learning environment.”

Lecce believes what the Liberals had earmarked was unrealistic.

“In their final year in government, they increased spending across the board. An election budget that had no monies in the fiscal framework, no monies provisioned in the budget.”

With no money to spare, the government is hoping cheaper construction costs will be the answer to tackling the repair backlog.