Nova Scotia lacks planning for schools, risk plans for infrastructure:auditor
Michael Pickup says there was evidence the Education Department had concerns about the impact a new high school approved for Eastern Passage would have on existing schools in the area.
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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia approved a new $21 million, Halifax-area school despite evidence it wasn't needed, the auditor general said Wednesday in a report that slammed the province for poor planning and a lack of transparency.
"No one in government can appropriately explain why this school is being built," Michael Pickup says in his November report.
Pickup says there was evidence the Education Department had concerns about the impact a new high school approved for Eastern Passage would have on existing schools in the area.
The audit cites a 2010 report for the Halifax Regional School Board that indicated there was no need for the school, and a 2007 report that suggested one fewer high school would be feasible for the area within 10 years.
The report says 2015 enrolment for nearby Cole Harbour High and Auburn Drive High show the schools are at just over 70 per cent of their capacity — a figure that will drop below 50 per cent when estimating enrolments in 2018 after the new Eastern Passage school opens.
The former NDP government first announced the new school, but the current Liberal government recently gave it the green light.
Pickup said he would have questions if he were a Nova Scotian in an area with a demonstrated need for a new school.
"What I am trying to do here is peel back the onion a bit to say 'Does everybody realize how capital decisions like new schools get made in Nova Scotia?'"
Pickup said he was disappointed the department won't review the decision, and called it "somewhat shameful."
"The only answer that I would receive on this is, 'Forget it we are not revisiting this decision and we are not revisiting it because cabinet has decided to honour the decision of the previous government' — end of story," he said.
Education Minister Karen Casey defended the decision, but wouldn't say whether it made for good policy.
"There was an expectation in the community that the school would be built," said Casey. "It had been approved by the government of the day and we accepted that and honoured that and are ready to move forward."
The report says the decision is an example of the lack of attention paid to capital planning in education. Pickup says auditors found little information on the general condition of 400 schools and no long-term plan for the school system.
The report also says four school projects were approved by cabinet at a cost of $63 million, although they ranked behind other unapproved projects based on committee assessments. The projects included new schools in Bridgetown and Tatamagouche and renovations to schools in Truro and Wolfville.
Pickup pointed out that beyond the information provided by the school assessment committee, cabinet's rationale isn't known.
He said bureaucrats produced what amounted to "red flags" in terms of other possible options for the schools in Tatamagouche and in Bridgetown. The schools are in ridings held by Casey and Premier Stephen McNeil respectively.
"I am consistently told that the reason Tatamagouche and Bridgetown got approved relates to regional fairness and relates to discussions at the cabinet table which we don't audit," said Pickup. "Nobody has been able to demonstrate to us how the need for these surpassed anything below them on the list."
Casey again defended cabinet's decision, saying a number of factors were considered before the new schools were approved.
"Regional fairness is certainly one of the things we have to consider ... and we also have to be driven by the needs within the community," she said.
The report also reviewed critical infrastructure, and says the province lacks planning to ensure safety and resiliency in areas such as transportation, communications and utilities.
It says cabinet has not assigned responsibility for the critical infrastructure program and hasn't identified all of the operators of systems that could affect the province. There is also no implementation plan for the government to meet its commitment to the National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure.
As an example, the report says no risk assessment or protection plan has been completed for the Canso Causeway and swing bridge, which is a critical transportation link to Cape Breton and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Figures show 8,300 vehicles use the link each day, a fifth of them trucks. Two freight trains pass through each day and there are 2,050 passages by marine traffic through the link's canal each year.
"Alternative transportation methods would need to be identified if the causeway was unavailable," says the report. "A prolonged disruption would impact distribution networks relying on transportation over the causeway, such as food and medicine."
Because most critical infrastructure is privately owned, the report says partnerships are needed between all levels of government and the private sector to ensure stability.