New Brunswick

School closures a hot topic in Moncton South election campaign

Progressive Conservative candidate Moira Murphy and Liberal candidate Cathy Rogers have made school closures, and where a new school might be built, a hot-button campaign issue.

Moira Murphy and Cathy Rogers among 5 candidates running in riding

Liberal candidate Cathy Rogers, left, and Progressive Conservative candidate Moira Murphy are among the candidates looking to win the riding of Moncton South in the provincial election. (CBC)

A city bus stop isn't the kind of issue a provincial election candidate would normally take on.

But Moira Murphy, running for the Progressive Conservatives in Moncton South, is hardly a normal provincial candidate.

"I am the most unlikely of all candidates," she says.

Murphy is a former Liberal whose husband, Mike Murphy, was a provincial cabinet minister in the Shawn Graham government. He ran for the Liberal leadership in 2012, losing to Brian Gallant.

She says that played no role in her decision to bolt from the Liberals and run for the PCs against Cathy Rogers, who won the seat in 2014 and is the finance minister in Gallant's government.

It was Liberal policies on seniors, on carbon taxes, and on deficits that prompted her to defect to the Tories, she says —not the fact Gallant defeated her spouse. "Sour grapes? Absolutely not."

Murphy's style, at least, takes after her husband's leadership campaign: she's running a brash, aggressive campaign marked by big, bold statements.

Rhetorically, she's gone farther than her leader, Blaine Higgs, for example by calling the Liberal carbon tax "death to industry [and] death to the working poor."

She has waded into issues not within provincial jurisdiction, including the Moncton east end pool controversy and a proposal by the local transit authority to move a bus stop farther from the entrance to an apartment complex for senior citizens.

And on one of the most hot-button subjects within her riding, she's breaking from Higgs's stated approach by promising to "fight" to keep two west end schools open — a commitment that would see a PC government overrule the Anglophone East District Education Council.

School battle dominates

The Moncton South riding takes in most of the city's urban core, including the downtown, the Victoria Park area, and most neighbourhoods south of Mountain Road.

Liberal candidate Cathy Rogers revealed on Facebook earlier this week that the province is considering only one site for a new school to replace Bessborough School and Hillcrest School - the Bessborough property. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But it's the west end school debate dominating the race, with Rogers supporters accusing Murphy of misleading voters. Murphy in turn has accused Rogers of politicizing the issue.

The DEC voted last year to ask the province to fund a replacement for Bessborough School, built in 1958. Under provincial policy, an upgrade to the existing structure was too expensive.

The Bessborough replacement prompted the DEC to also study the future of Hillcrest, a smaller school built in 1954 and located a 15-minute walk from Bessborough.

After public consultations in which parents split evenly on whether to merge with Bessborough or keep Hillcrest, the council voted for a single new school, with a location to be determined later.

That looming decision is now a campaign flashpoint between Rogers and Murphy.

Murphy accused of 'forgery'

On Sept. 2, Murphy posted an image of a February Facebook post by Rogers about the replacement school, along with an aerial graphic from the Times & Transcript newspaper showing a new location at Franklin Yard, behind Centennial Park. It's been proposed by a developer who wants to build a subdivision there.

Rogers' campaign manager Darren Blois called the post a "forgery" and said the two images side-by-side made it look like Rogers favoured the new site.

"Why post Cathy's announcement of a new school as part of her post, and then some graphics, unless you're implying that the two go together?" Blois said.

Murphy says the aerial view was clearly labelled "developer proposal" for anyone who clicked on the image.

Progressive Conservative candidate Moira Murphy said she decided to run for the PCs after being upset by Liberal policies. (CBC)

"I'm not responsible for how Facebook puts it on but I know if you click on each picture, it shows," Murphy said. "I thought it was clear for everybody.

"I don't play politics that way. This is me. I speak the truth. If [Rogers] has misunderstood it, I'm sorry she has misunderstood it."

Rogers forced to respond

Rogers admits she felt forced to respond when she started hearing on doorsteps that voters believed the government had settled on the Franklin Yard site.

"Over and over I kept being told the same thing," she said.

Rogers said in a new Facebook post that "initial planning" is underway to build the school on the Bessborough site. "It is the only site being considered," she said.

Provincial policy says the first choice for a new school should be land already owned by the government. Rogers said she and the Liberal government have followed existing policy at every step. "Never have I deviated from that."

Accusations of playing politics

Murphy said the timing of the Rogers post was "curious and somewhat suspicious. I'm not focused on what she's doing. She can do whatever she wants to do and she can practice politics however she wants to."

Rogers said she was trying to "correct misinformation that I believe is probably used for political purposes. And really I don't like playing politics with education, with students, parents, teachers. It's not the place for it at all."

Moncton South MLA Cathy Rogers signed the $299.2 million funding agreement with the federal government under the National Housing Strategy in July. She hoped that money would already be flowing to communities under the still unreleased provincial housing plan. (CBC)

Some Hillcrest parents were upset to learn from a Facebook post, and not directly from Rogers, that Bessborough is now the likely site.

Rogers says she was given the information by the department before the campaign began, but was asked to sit on it because it was too early for an an official announcement.

She only went public because Murphy created the impression that the government preferred Franklin Yard, she says.

Murphy would overrule DEC

Meanwhile, Murphy is vowing to fight to keep both Bessborough and Hillcrest open.

That contradicts the message that PC Leader Blaine Higgs has been sending. He recently said that the province should remove politicians from DEC decisions.

In Hanwell, for example, he said the government should respect local decision-making by the Anglophone West DEC that a school is needed there.

All schools in Anglophone east will close early as heat warnings continue. (CBC News file photo)

Murphy says she's been told Anglophone East voted to close Hillcrest only because "they felt confined by policies."

She couldn't say for sure which policies. "I didn't see that in any of the news articles I came across, but I believe I heard — and I could be corrected — that Policy 409 is if it hits a certain threshold of numbers of students, they're going to close it down."

In fact, the threshold in the policy only triggers a study of whether to close a school, not a closure.

And in the Hillcrest case, the DEC's study was not triggered by the policy threshold. Council launched the study because it was already asking for a replacement for nearby Bessborough.

Murphy said in planning to try to keep both schools open despite the DEC decision, "I'm certainly not speaking with the leader's permission."

Hillcrest parent disappointed with politics

James Upham, a member of the Hillcrest parent committee, said he was disappointed to see the site location become an election issue.

"The decision we make here needs to be the decision that's going to be the most benefit for the changing demographic we have here in the west end of Moncton," he said.

James Upham, a member of the Hillcrest parent committee, said seeing the location of a planned new school become an election issue was disappointing. (CBC)

While Upham has concerns about putting the new school at the Bessborough site, he said he didn't believe Murphy's idea to keep Hillcrest open was feasible.

"The DEC has already voted to close," he said. "As I understand it, that's essentially a final decision.

"People are going to do things. It's an election. This is how it goes, apparently. I try to stay out of a lot of this. The DEC has voted on whether or not Hillcrest is going to close, and the DEC has voted to close Hillcrest."

'Misinformation' on other issues, Rogers says

Rogers says it's not the only issue on which voters seem to be getting inaccurate information.

She said she met a voter recently who believed that if she voted for Rogers and the Liberals were re-elected, they would revive an earlier plan to factor seniors' assets, including their homes, into how much they pay for nursing home care.

"I had to explain to this woman what the real situation is," Rogers said, "and the real story is that we are not taking seniors' assets. This has been off the table."

Downtown poverty, crime an issue

Both candidates agree on another important issue in the riding: poverty, homelessness, drug use and crime in the city's downtown.

"It's exploding in the area. I work in the downtown and I'm seeing people shoot up at 9 a.m. outside my office," Murphy said. She says people are living on the streets because of a lack of housing.

"We need to find homes for them," she said. "We need to find support for them."

Sommet Park in downtown Moncton. The city recently approved changes to the park after complaints about drug use and other safety concerns. (Shane Magee/CBC News)

Rogers said Liberal policies including minimum wage increases, more access to post-secondary education, and improved mental health services would contribute.

"These things will help, but I'm the first to agree: I've lived here my whole life and I have not seen the downtown challenges as great as I've seen this year."

Three other candidates are running candidates in Moncton South: Amy Johnson for the NDP, Laura Sanderson for the Green Party, and Marilyn Crossman-Riel of the People's Alliance.

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