Schools, politics and the provincial thumb on the scale

Credit: CBC

Education Minister Karen Casey says reporters who would dare to even hint that politics — perish that pesky thought — might have influenced the government’s decision to replace Spryfield’s J.L. Ilsley High School should make that outrageous claim to the faces of the problem-plagued school’s teachers, staff, students and parents.

Karen Casey

Well, yes, they could do that.

Or perhaps they could ask teachers, staff, students and parents at Eastern Shore District High School if they think politics was behind the government’s decision not to replace their school.

The problem is that her government has an unfortunate — but earned — reputation for putting its political thumb on the decision-making scale when it comes to which shiny new schools to build in which politicians’ backyards.

Consider. Back in November, provincial auditor general Michael Pickup, after scouring all the available official paperwork, was unable to find any explanation — good or otherwise — why Stephen McNeil’s government had approved three new schools in Liberal-held constituencies, including one in Bridgetown ($23.9 million) in his own riding and another in Tatamagouche ($21.6 million), held by his education minister.

Declared the man charged with examining public value for taxpayer dollars spent: “We are lost to understand why these schools were approved given the analysis provided to us.”


Here’s the way the system is supposed to work. The provincial department of education asks local school boards to submit wish lists, with detailed justifications, for new schools and capital upgrades in their districts. An independent panel of public servants then analyzes those submissions and rank-orders the projects on a province-wide basis. The purpose of that process is to take political game-playing out of the system.

And that is, in fact, what happened with the initial placement of the Bridgetown and Tatamagouche schools projects. Bridgetown ranked 26th on the long list, Tatamagouche 28th, both well below the cut-off for green-lighting the schools.

The committee concluded there needed to be “more consideration of possible renovations, or options,” rather than new schools.

Case closed. Except…

The Liberal cabinet approved building those new schools anyway.

Brendan Maguire

So Karen Casey should not be surprised when eyebrows were arched late last month after Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire Facebook Live-announced — the “proudest moment” of his political career — the surprising news that the McNeil government was going to build a new school to replace J.L. Ilsley High School.

It was surprising for a number of reasons.

To be fair, J.L. Ilsley — which is almost 50 years old and has already seen $2.5 million in renovation work — does needs more fixing up, or replacing.

But it’s far from the only old HRM school in that category. Eastern Shore District High School, for instance, is 52 years old and is, according to its school board representative, “the oldest high school… that hasn’t been renovated.” It too is crumbling, is riddled with asbestos and needs truckloads of water delivered three times a day — at a cost of $50,000 a year — just to keep educating its 420 students.

And then there are those new schools that need to be built to take the pressure off already over-crowded schools like Madeline Symonds, Hammonds Plains and Basinview in the fast growing Hammonds Plains suburbs, and the new junior high the Halifax school board believes needs to be built in north-end Halifax.

Those new schools, as well as a replacement for Eastern Shore District, were all on the capital projects priority list the Halifax Regional School Board submitted to the province. J.L. Ilsley was not. On March 30, 2016, in fact, the school board specifically defeated — by a margin of 7–2 — a motion to add J.L. Ilsley to the list.

And yet… here we are.

Politics? How can we not suggest politics, Karen Casey?

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

  1. Hi Stephen: Are the school board capital priority lists publicly available?


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