Documents shed light on queue jumping in Nova Scotia school construction
Before a new school in Education Minister Karen Casey’s riding was approved by cabinet, bureaucrats in the department said there was “no benefit demonstrated” for the Tatamagouche school.
Documents released through access to information include the scorecards for schools that were pushed ahead of others higher on the waiting list for renovations or new builds, for 2014-15.
The priority ranking is done by education staff and sent to finance for review before going to cabinet for final decision, according to the process explained by auditor general Michael Pickup.
A separate request for the finance department’s final school ranking was released but is almost fully redacted.
In November, Pickup red-flagged the decision-making process for school construction saying he was “lost” to understand why some schools were approved ahead of others.
WATCH ABOVE: Wed, Nov 30: New schools in Nova Scotia were approved with “no evidence” supporting the need and in some cases above higher-need areas, according to a new report from Auditor General Michael Pickup. Global’s Marieke Walsh explains his findings in this November 2016 report.
The schools: Where and why
Based on the education department’s ranking, cabinet allowed six schools to jump the queue. Five of those schools were in Liberal ridings, the sixth was in NDP MLA Lenore Zann’s riding. In total, 17 of 45 school projects were approved from that list in 2014-15.
The schools and where they stood on the list are as follows:
- 13: Ecole Acadienne de Truro in Zann’s riding received an addition and renovation for $2.5 million
- 17: Wolfville School in Liberal MLA Keith Irving’s riding received a major upgrade for $14.5 million
- 22: A new Eastern District primary to Grade 12 school in Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines’ riding was approved for $22.3 million
- 23: A new Bridgetown Regional High School in Premier Stephen McNeil’s riding was approved for $23.7 million
- 27: A new Tatamagouche primary to Grade 12 school in Education Minister Karen Casey’s riding was approved for $21.3 million
- 41: The purchase of Shannon Park Elementary from the Department of National Defence in Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard’s riding was approved for $313,000
Based on the list from the education department, construction projects pushed through by cabinet skipped over schools in Liberal and opposition ridings. Ten of the schools that were skipped were in opposition or independent ridings, 14 of the schools skipped over were in Liberal ridings.
All but one of the schools that jumped the queue have documentation explaining the request for construction. The new school for Tatamagouche does not list a description, background, overview, facilities, approach, or project phase. The rest all do. For Tatamagouche, the only information contained in the documents is the costing and the scorecard. The proposed new school scored 47.5 out of 100.
According to the scorecard, staff at the department said there was “no benefit demonstrated” for the request, that other options weren’t considered, and that the project is “roughly aligned with government priorities.”
Casey was not made available for an interview.
An emailed statement from her department said cabinet decisions are based on “many factors including program development and delivery, budget availability, critical infrastructure needs across the province and regional fairness.”
“Some factors for consideration cannot be adequately expressed on a score sheet,” spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said.
The school in Tatamagouche got the same score as the two above it which were not approved that year, and have not been funded since then. According to additional information provided by the government, a new elementary school in Springhill and a request for H.M. MacDonald School in Antigonish were also rated 47.5.
The documents say the requests made for new schools in McNeil and Hines’ ridings also didn’t consider other options. In the case of the new school for the Eastern Shore, staff said it “roughly aligned with government priorities” and gave it a score of 52.5. The new school in Bridgetown also scored a 52.5 but in this case staff said it was “roughly aligned with priorities” and “part of the department’s business plan.”
The Wolfville School scored a 63, while the schools it skipped over scored 69.5. The score sheet says the renovation was “roughly aligned with government priorities.”
At 69.5 out of 100, the Truro school scored the same as the school it skipped over — Malcolm Munroe Junior High School — in Progressive Conservative MLA Alfie MacLeod’s riding.
In the case of Shannon Park, the school board say a late offer from the federal government to purchase the school pushed it up the priority list. It was ranked 41 with a score of 32 on the list.
Fairbairn said the federal government’s decision to sell the Shannon Park Lands after the scoring was done is an example of why the government needs “flexibility to respond to new information and events as they transpire.”
‘Corrupt at the top’: Opposition leader
The opposition say the latest documents are more proof that decision-making at the education department is driven by politics.
“Pretty obviously it’s about Liberal ridings,” Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said. “The system is corrupt at the top.”
Baillie said students in his riding have been waiting for years for a new elementary school in Springhill. He said the current buildings suffer from mould and air quality problems and are “so decrepit” that programming suffers.
Casey has previously said the suggestion that politics plays a role in school construction is “ridiculous.” Both the Tories and the NDP say its unfair to skip over schools higher up on the waiting list.
“There’s a gross unfairness about it,” NDP Leader Gary Burrill said. “It is pretty transparently obvious that it has to do with political considerations and delivering the bacon.”
Time to change the rules: HRSB chair
Questions around how construction projects are decided were also raised in January when cabinet announced a new school for J.L. Ilsley High School in Spryfield. It was not a high priority, according to the ranking the Halifax Regional School Board gave the government.
“The problem is we don’t know how decisions are made,” board chair Dave Wright said.
Each year school boards rank the highest priority needs for construction and send the list to the government. Cabinet makes the final decision. Pickup’s fall report called for sweeping changes to capital planning at the education department.
The department has agreed that the process “can be better,” Fairbairn said. Work in the area is ongoing.
Although the rankings cover the same 2014-15 time frame, there are discrepancies between the ranking contained in the documents released through access to information and the one cited by the auditor general in his fall report — neither his office nor the education department could explain the difference.
The auditor general’s office says Bridgetown and Tatamagouche were ranked even lower on the list it received from the department.
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