Richmond, the primary-to-nine school I attended in north end Halifax, is long gone.
Not quite true.
The oldest section, ironically the one re-built after the 1917 Halifax Explosion, now serves as a family court building. The other two wings, hastily tacked on after World War II to accommodate then-exponentially expanding baby boom babies, were unceremoniously leveled after the wave crested, young families moved to the suburbs and Halifax finally outgrew its wasteful tradition of parallel Protestant-Catholic schools.
I can’t help thinking about Richmond’s fate whenever the province’s annual March Madness Educational Demolition Derby enters its final fevered days.
Last week, with today’s looming deadline for determining which schools no longer make the Survivor cut, provincial school boards voted to shutter at least five schools, amalgamate two others and put up 14—or more; who can keep count?—for review in the next year.
Which means more families will suffer through the same gut-wrenching process next year.
The issues are easy enough to catalogue: declining birth rates, rural depopulation, pinched provincial budgets, delayed-until-it’s-too-late building maintenance, continuing collapse of rural economies, more budget cuts…
The answers… less so.
While there is a growing consensus big is not necessarily better—particularly now that technology can connect students in the smallest rural schools with the Internet’s vast, comprehensive database of facts, ideas, life—the reality is cash-strapped school boards currently spend $100 million a year just to heat, light and maintain empty classrooms in more-than-half-empty school buildings.
One promising suggestion, touted by some parents and community groups, calls for under-used schools to become fully utilized community hubs, with classrooms sharing space with rent-paying community groups, non-profits, government offices, even businesses.
“We have to view these buildings as an asset and not a liability,” says CUPE Nova Scotia President Danny Cavanagh, who believes they could become “community centerpieces.”
While the department of education is experimenting with a modest version of the idea—SchoolsPlus combines government services with classrooms—it only currently plans to implement it in four schools a year. That’s not nearly enough.
The next March madness is less than a year away.
While there may be no easy answers, the current answer is no answer at all.
It doesn't You do. One way or the other...
Solidarity Halifax’s quixotic campaign to rename the Commons skating oval isn’t likely to find many takers among cash-starved city councilors, but it should give the rest of us pause.
How is it that Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, the private utility that keeps applying to jack up our electricity rates, not only has enough spare cash to reward its million-dollar-a-year executives with top-up performance bonuses—in no small measure for convincing regulators to jack up our electricity rates to keep shareholder returns high—but also still has sufficient leftover scraps to contribute “generously” to public recreation complexes in exchange for rights to name those mostly-publicly-financed facilities after itself?
In 2011, Halifax city council traded Emera naming rights to the new Commons skating oval for the next 10 years for $500,000.
Think about it. The rink cost taxpayers $5.7 million to build, plus another $400,000 a year to maintain. But for $50,000 a year, Emera gets to name the venue after itself, thereby claiming credit for its existence.
Or Consider Queen’s Place Emera Centre in Liverpool. For another $500,000, the company got to slap its corporate face on the front of a community recreation complex that cost federal taxpayers $7 million, provincial taxpayers $5 million and local governments $4 million in capital reserves.
Queen’s Place Emera Centre?
And then there’s the space formerly known as the Northside Community Civic Centre in North Sydney. For a measly $350,000, Emera got to name that otherwise $22-million publicly-funded facility Emera Centre Northside.
One can’t blame financially strapped communities for prostrating themselves before the chintzy gods of corporate givers. But one can ask why corporations, especially regulated monopoly profit centres, have so much cash on hand they can dangle it, like lollipops, for branding purposes.
Could it be because corporations no longer pay their fair share of taxes, which gives these corporate “donors” inordinate power over what should be community funding—and naming—recreation, arts and culture decisions.
Though it won’t change reality, you can at least express your unhappiness by voting for a new, improved non-corporate name for our oval from a short list at solidarityhalifax.ca. Voting concludes Mar. 7.
One of the enduring myths among those who bow down to the gods of the marketplace is that someone who screws up in the private sector—unlike the cosseted public sphere—will suffer inevitable, inevitably dire consequences for failure.
While there may be truth to that at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder, those at the top seem well insulated from the rigors of marketplace discipline.
Case in point: Rob Bennett, until last week the president and chief operating officer of Nova Scotia Power, 2011 salary circa $1.15 million, up 23 per cent from the year before…
Last month, the Nova Scotia Utilities Review Board issued its decision on NSP’s latest rate increase request. While granting three per cent increases in 2013 and 2014, the board tore a strip off Nova Scotia Power management, which is to say Bennett.
It disallowed $4.5 million in fuel costs the company had claimed in 2010 and 2011, arguing NSP could have purchased fuel more cheaply.
And it expressed its “dismay and concern” over the company’s “unreasonable… inappropriate… inexplicable… inexcusable” conduct during the hearings. After spending $2 million to hire 10 experts and filing over 1,000 pages of evidence to attack an independent auditor’s conclusions, the company—on the very last day of the hearings—revealed important information about its fuel market dealings, which, the board noted, added “significant time, cost and rancor, unnecessarily” to the proceedings.
The URB fined NSP $2 million for bad behavior.
Let’s see… Two-million to unsuccessfully contest the audit, $2 million for conduct unbecoming and $4.5 million more to cover disallowed fuel costs. That’s $8.5 million.
And don’t forget that during Bennett’s four-year watch, a $93-million heat recovery project went 40 per cent over budget and the company had to swallow more costs because of delays in moving into its new corporate headquarters.
Did Bennett walk the plank for his transgressions? Fall on his sword in shame?
Not exactly. Last week, Emera, NSP’s parent company, announced Bennett would become its executive vice president and chief operating officer, a job that didn’t exist before it was created coincidentally just in time for Bennett’s soft landing.
Ah, yes, the private sector. Where the consequences of failure are… success.
On January 1, 1992, Andrea Lynn King, an 18-year-old woman from British Columbia flew to Halifax to begin a travel-work adventure… She phoned her sister from the airport to say she’d landed and would be staying the night at a downtown hostel. She would call the next day, she said, with her new address so her family could mail a purse she’d forgotten.
She never called.
Three days later, her family reported her missing. A year later, her remains were found in woods near the Sackville business park.
Today, Andrea King’s name is on an incredibly long list of Halifax’s unsolved homicides. The total is now 52, with six new cases added in 2012 alone.
Over the weekend, there were the predictable anniversary-of stories highlighting the fact the King investigation is ongoing, that anyone with information should call… etc..
Missing from the accounts I read was any acknowledgment Halifax police had a prime suspect in the King murder—along with several other unsolved crimes—but botched it.
During a 1997 re-investigation of the 1989 disappearance of another young woman, Kimberly McAndrew—her case also still unsolved—police identified a former Halifax sex offender as a prime suspect. During a sex offender treatment program, the man, Andrew Paul Johnson, had been asked to write an essay about a sexual assault from the point of view of the victim. Johnson’s essay was a chilling account of McAndrew’s rape and murder.
Rummaging through Johnson’s life and times, police also found evidence linking him to King’s disappearance, including her compact.
At the time, DNA testing wasn’t sophisticated enough to positively connect the murder dots from Johnson to McAndrew or King, and police themselves lost interest after a B.C. court declared Johnson a dangerous offender in 2001.
Three years later, then-detective Tom Martin—who would run for mayor in 2012—joined the force’s cold case squad and asked for a piece of DNA evidence he knew the task force had collected. He hoped testing advances might lead to the breakthrough investigators needed.
The evidence had disappeared.
Today, police are still “seeking the public’s help…”
There are any number of reasons, of course, why homicides don’t get solved. But, given the stunning number still on the books in Halifax, we need to ask if incompetence is one of those reasons.
With the pre-holiday spate of comment-worthy local news and the upcoming holiday absence of venue to vent my inevitable shocked-and-appalled-at-it-all spleen, today’s column will be an assorted stocking stuffer.
No charges in Home for Coloured Children investigation: I’m less shocked than I’d like. But winning convictions when allegations date back decades, involve children and include little documentary evidence is difficult, perhaps impossible.
That makes the ongoing class action suit—where the burdens of proof are different—even more significant for the victims, and a full public inquiry vital for all of us.
Who was responsible for creating the conditions that allowed such abuse to continue unchecked? What role did racism play in the lack of official oversight or interest when children came forward with allegations? What can we learn?
It’s time the provincial government did the right thing.
Swastikas, anti-Semitism and the Atlantic Jewish Council: A few protesters at a recent anti-war rally outside the Halifax International Security Forum carried posters with images of swastikas, equating Israeli attacks on Gaza with Hitler’s Nazis.
Atlantic Jewish Council Executive Director Jon Goldberg was right to condemn the comparison as anti-Semitism. “And any attempt to hold Jews collectively responsible for political actions of the state of Israel,” he added, “is anti-Semitism.”
Would that groups like the AJC were equally quick to condemn North American Jewish groups’ often knee-jerk invocations of anti-Semitism when anyone criticizes Israel for its attacks on Palestinians.
Province buys Bowater lands: The Dexter government has completed a complex deal to purchase 550,000 acres of former Bowater Mersey assets for $1, assume employee pension liabilities, resell a Bowater biomass power plant and transform the mill into an innovative clean energy centre.
It appears to be a smart long-term investment protecting our forests, providing employment and creating rural development opportunities. Win, win, win. Finally.
Savage speaks: Speaking last week to the Chamber of Commerce, new Mayor Mike Savage talked about everything from the role of universities in our economy to revitalizing downtown Halifax with an iconic legacy project to replace the Cogswell Street Interchange white elephant.
“This is not a building we’re talking about,” he declared, “this is a community. This is huge.”
Vision from a Halifax mayor?
Wow. No wonder Savage got a standing O.
Happy holidays to all.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber
One can understand Premier Darrell Dexter’s aggressive/defensive, head-in-the-convention-centre response to last week’s auditor general’s report.
That report—which damned the shoddiness of the business case Trade Centre Ltd. concocted to justify a new convention centre—called on the government to launch an independent review of TCL’s numbers.
Dexter was having none of it. TCL based its conclusions, he told reporters, on eight different studies “that came about independent of the Trade Centre by respected market analysis companies, so I have no reason to disbelieve those projections.”
Would the premier perhaps be referring to the independent report prepared by the executive director of Convention Centres of Canada, a convention industry-promoting agency, which—surprise—thought a new convention centre a spiffy idea? Or maybe he was thinking about that in-depth assessment prepared—in another respected consultant’s own words—“without the benefit of any primary research”?
In his analysis of TCL’s lack of analysis, Auditor General Jacques LaPointe points out “industry realities were ignored, including the over-supply of convention centre spaces in Canada, new competitors and the stagnant convention market.” TCL’s upbeat forecasts, he told reporters, “were not really consistent with much of anything.”
LaPointe’s conclusions are no shock.
In June 2010, four months before Dexter announced his government would contribute one-third of the $163 million public funds needed to build the centre, a citizen’s group called Coalition to Save the View—after studying four consultants’ conclusions—said almost exactly the same thing. So has almost anyone else who has looked at TCL’s self-serving numbers.
The problem now is that it’s too late.
Dexter has tethered a significant strand in his own re-election rope to what he calls “one of the largest building projects to take place in our city’s history.” More importantly, there’s a developer whose $500-million project hinges on a new convention centre. He’s signed contracts, broken ground…
Cancelling the project now—no matter what a truly independent analysis might ultimately conclude—would invite law suits and even more uncertainty about the future of downtown.
So the response is bluster. We already have eight studies, the premier says. Why would we want a ninth?
Instead, we will—eventually—get reality. By then it will really be too late.
Perhaps, in 20 or 30 year, we will call for proposals for what to do with the convention centre.
Shades of the Cogswell Street Interchange, yet another monument to the triumph of grand dreams over honest analysis.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber