Nova Scotia opposition leaders say the Progressive Conservative government should be able to provide proof to the public that new schools announced in recent months — all of them in Tory districts — are those most in need of replacement.
Education Minister Becky Druhan released her government’s school capital plan last month. Along with renovations and the addition of modular classrooms for some schools, the plan also includes eight new builds: four to replace existing schools and four to go in parts of Halifax Regional Municipality to address areas of high population growth.
Four of those buildings have already been announced and are in Tory districts, while details for the other four have not been released. Last week, Druhan told reporters that’s because communities are excited about the projects and “announcing them individually allows us to celebrate.”
NDP Leader Claudia Chender has a different view on what the government is doing.
“I think it’s because they want to be celebrated in every community,” she told reporters. “And so they have started by wanting to be celebrated in the community that they currently represent.”
To date, the government has announced replacement schools in Porters Lake, Trenton, and the New Germany and West Hants areas, all areas represented by Progressive Conservative MLAs.
Druhan has refused to provide any information about the new schools in the Halifax area until land is purchased and announcements can be made.
She also refused to say if the schools announced so far are at the top of priority lists submitted for consideration by regional centers for education, or if political influence played a role in the selection of the sites for replacement.
“These are four priority schools that the regions identify as being important schools that need to be replaced,” said Druhan.
The minister said that after the regional centers make their submissions to her department, officials in the Education Department and Public Works Department review those lists and make recommendations. Cabinet has the final say on capital projects.
A previous Liberal government was criticized in an auditor general’s report for a capital plan that, while including the top 10 projects identified by an evaluation committee, also included schools that came in at 26 and 28 on the priority list. Those two schools happened to be in the districts of then-premier Stephen McNeil and the education minister of the day, Karen Casey.
Although the auditor general acknowledged that the cabinet has final say over project selection, he also said the government should be prepared to publicly explain the decisions. Druhan would not say last week if there is a central list that ranks all the priority schools submitted by the regional centres.
“We have a variety of capital needs across the province for communities in relation to schools,” she said.
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill, a former education minister, said the public has a right to know how projects are selected by the government rank on the priority list — and if there is one.
“We know that there is student population pressure all over the province. We know that there are large maintenance issues in many of our schools across the province,” he told reporters.
Druhan should provide the details on why those projects announced they were selected and show where they ranked based on maintenance and student population needs, said Churchill.
Chender said Druhan and her government should feel the responsibility of laying out how decisions are made without requiring the auditor general to get involved, but adding that could be necessary.
“I would hope that basic decency would dictate that they would release that kind of information,” said Chender. “So far, though, I’m not optimistic, so a report from the auditor general would be very helpful.”