When the New Brunswick government invests $438 million into a problem area over a decade, there is typically an expectation that the concern would be improved in that time period.

A Department of Education document shows that is not always the case when it comes to fixing New Brunswick's aging schools.

In September 2001, the Department of Education estimated it needed $248.2 million in capital repairs to its schools. A decade later, after spending $438 million on facility improvements, the department estimates it still needs to spend $246.5 million on capital projects.

The condition of New Brunswick's schools have emerged as a serious concern after Moncton High School and École Polyvalente Roland-Pépin were both closed for the remainder of the school year over health and safety problems.

When the school safety concerns broke, freshly-minted Education Minister Jody Carr immediately called a structural safety review of the 229 schools constructed prior to 1980 once the school problems were revealed.

This sets up a political problem for Carr as he'll have to act on the report and pour hundreds of millions into capital repairs at a time when budgets are being cut, or he'll have to answer to parents around the province about why he's not acting.

But examining the impact of how money has been spent on improving schools in the past shows that smply boosting the capital budget doesn't tackle the problem.

What the Department of Education document underscores is that problems with the province's schools have been around for a long time. It is also evident that the problem worsened during the Liberal regime.

A record amount of repair funds were injected in the 2010-11 capital budget budget thanks to the stimulus initiative. And that was able to bend the curve down only slightly after three years of increasing demands.

When the Progressive Conservatives were in office in 2001-02, they faced $248 million worth of capital repairs broken down into three priority areas. "Priority one" was the most in need; "Priority three" needed repairs, but not urgently. The department estimated it had $70.9 million worth of priority-one repairs.

A series of capital budgets spending between $34 million and $58 million saw the total amount needed in repairs down to $171.3 million, with the needed priority-one repairs falling to just to $47.6 million. The Liberals slashed the education department's capital budget in 2007 to $30.6 million, then raised it slowly until last year's massive $96.5-million budget.

Even after that infusion of cash, the department estimated $95 million would be needed to fix priority-one schools and $265 million for schools in all three groups.

Despite the three-year trend downward, the amount needed to repair priority-one schools has grown steadily in the last decade. Just to tackle the priority-one schools this year would take what would undoubtedly be the largest capital budget in the Department of Education's history. That wouldn't even include any new problems uncovered by Carr's review or the priority-two and priority-three schools.

Of course, money will always need to spent on fixing schools, because schools keep getting older. But the trends show the demand escalating, despite the department spending hundreds of millions of dollars on repairs.

When the Higgs Doctrine - original or 2.0 - is factored in, the situation becomes less clear. It seems the PC government has established school safety as a need and not a want, but the Department of Education, unlike the Department of Health, must come up with a one-per-cent budget cut in the current year and another two per cent for the upcoming fiscal year.

And if these projects are considered to be needs, what items are being pushed off the agenda? What are the long-term policy implications in investing in fixing up old schools versus putting new effort, research and development and cash into a learning agenda capitalizing on the gains being made through the use of technology and innovation? The former Bernard Lord government pioneered the laptop program. Will that become a relic under the new administration?

Will Carr's department entertain a debate that would have crumbling schools closed and then have students transported to schools in nearby communities that have good schools and plenty of space? Or new schools built in central areas, replacing older schools, and having students bused out of their home communities?

The department's capital priorities chart shows that simply pouring more money into fixing old schools over time does not actually address the challenge of the aging facilities.
-- Daniel McHardie

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