Stephen McNeil Memorial School under construction.

The very suggestion the Nova Scotia government would cherry-pick new school building projects from the bottom of the priority pile simply because said schools would be built in constituencies held by Education Minister Karen Casey and Premier Stephen McNeil, is — cue the harrumphs — “a ridiculous comment to make.”

So says the minister herself. So it must be true.

To be fair, Auditor General Michael Pickup’s report last week did not specifically conclude partisan gamesmanship gamed the cabinet’s decision to ignore the facts to build two unneeded but vote-winning new schools: one in Bridgetown ($23.9 million), which is in McNeil’s home district  (surprise!), and the other in Tatamagouche ($21.6 million), which just happens to be in Casey’s backyard (golly-gosh).

Education Minister Karen Casey. Photo: Ryan Taplin / Local Xpress
Education Minister Karen Casey. Photo: Ryan Taplin / Local Xpress

But Pickup does lay down a bacon-fat-covered trail of bread crumbs that inevitably lead us inside the cabinet room where McNeil presides and Casey rules the education roost.

In the province’s 2014-15 capital plan, Pickup’s report explains, the two schools had been ranked “much lower” than other potential projects by two independent expert panels of public servants. Those committees are charged with vetting and ranking capital requests from local school boards, in large part to keep politics out of the mix.

The Stephen McNeil Memorial School in Bridgetown ranked 26th; the Karen Casey Tatamagouche Education Centre 28th.

Explains Pickup:

“The committees had concerns about these projects, including inadequate investigation of alternative options and less expensive options which had been ignored. In the cases of the new school construction projects in Bridgetown and Tatamagouche, assessments by the committees concluded that more consideration of possible renovations, or other options within the region, was needed.”

Pickup found “no evidence” in the material his auditors examined to support the government’s decisions, but he added: “We audited the work of the public service, but understand the ultimate decisions are the authority of Executive Council and we do not audit that part of the process.” One wonders why not?

Casey’s non-answer when asked what evidence — aside from political geography — the government used to make its decisions is an answer in itself: “There was no suggestion that anything that was addressed by our government had anything to do with whether it was in my riding or not,” she told the CBC.

Uh… OK.


So we are left to our imaginations to figure out how they came to their un-ridiculous conclusion. Perhaps McNeil and Casey wrote the names of the two schools on sheets of paper and put them in a hat, picking them out one by one.

“Oh, look, Karen, you won,” says the premier. “My turn! My turn!”

Or maybe it was a case of playing pin the school on the taxpayer — with just two schools and a province full of taxpayers.

No matter.

Let’s see. What about if we…

  • took the money we could have saved from the $45.5-million we wasted erecting the new McNeil-Casey educational edifices;
  • added in the savings if the government hadn’t chosen what Pickup calls a “more expensive” $17-million option to renovate two other schools in Liberal held ridings; and then
  • topped it all up with the savings we might have gained if Casey’s department hadn’t done such a “completely inadequate… late and disjointed” botch-up of the process to decide what to do with our already over-priced P3 schools…

… we might actually have some money available to spend on keeping teachers in their classrooms doing what they do best.

Instead, Education Minister Casey has decreed our teachers must show up at school this morning in order not to teach in classrooms emptied on her orders, while MLAs attend a special session of the House of Assembly in order to pass legislation to prevent the teachers from teaching to the letter of their existing contract in a legitimate protest against the government’s continuing unwillingness to negotiate a new contract with them… all so the government can then ultimately impose a rejected contract on them.

Wouldn’t it have been better for all concerned if  the government had simply bargained in good faith with the teachers in the first place?

As Karen Casey might say: What a ridiculous comment to make.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Exactly.

    Too bad we can’t use Freedom of Information to find out how these decisions are actually made.

    One way or the other McNeil would keep us from finding out. If we did submit a request, we wouldn’t get anything because 1) McNeil admits he uses the phone or in-person discussions to avoid writing down what he doesn’t want in the public domain 2) they would retract it or 3) they would say it was cabinet confidence.

    Bottom line is McNeil doesn’t believe in transparency… because… ?

  2. The school decisions certainly smell, but no surprise really, politics trumps practicality. I dunno did the gov’t bargain in good faith when the union brought the last two offers to their membership?

  3. This is just one example of financial mismanagement in our education system. What a shame that Casey locked students out and kept teachers at school. And for what? to stay away from protesting perhaps?