Nova Scotia

Auditor general slams plan to build $21M Eastern Passage high school

Nova Scotia's auditor general is urging the province to review its decision to build a new high school in Eastern Passage, and says there's no evidence a new school is needed.

Michael Pickup warned deputy minister of concerns before construction contract signed

Auditor General Michael Pickup says the province should not build a new high school in Eastern Passage. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Auditor General Michael Pickup is urging the province to put the brakes on a plan to build a $21-million high school in Eastern Passage, a project first promised by the previous NDP government but green-lighted by the Liberals.

There is "no evidence to support the need for additional high school capacity in the Cole Harbour and surrounding areas," Pickup said in a blunt assessment of the plan in his latest report, released Wednesday.

"Enrolment figures of local schools clearly show it is not required."

The auditor general notes a new school will seriously deplete student numbers at Cole Harbour High School.

According to projections, attendance at Cole Harbour would drop from the current 835 students to just 325 in 2018, leaving the school only a third occupied. It has room for 1,032 students.

Neighbouring Auburn Drive High School wouldn't see any drop in enrolment, but taken together the AG noted the combined utilization of high schools in the area would drop to 49 percent with the new school in Eastern Passage.

No plan to deal with impact 

"There is currently no plan on how to address the under utilization of these schools," the report states.

Auditors had such serious concerns during their examination of the plan that they took the unusual step of warning the deputy minister of Education in early September, before the province signed a contract to build the school. 

The report notes the province went ahead with the signing, despite the AG's misgivings.

The site of the future high school in Eastern Passage, seen in April 2015. (CBC)

Even though a company has been hired to do the work, the AG's office is recommending the department review that decision and its impact on surrounding schools.

But Education Minister Karen Casey said her government made a commitment back in 2013 that it would go ahead with capital promises made by the former NDP government.

A problem for school boards to address

"There was an expectation in the community that that school would be built; they had been told that, it had been approved by the government of the day," she said.

Casey said any issues of excess capacity and how to deal with it are for school boards to address.

Tory MLA Tim Houston said the process needs to be stopped and revisited.

"The government, they need to explain why they're doing this exactly and until they do that they can't just keep going and spend $21 million."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill was a member of the former government that approved the project, although he wasn't in cabinet. He acknowledges there is a problem with the process, but stopped short of throwing his former government under the bus.

"I don't have the information or the analysis on which to make that decision but I think he's right that … the people need to be able to have a clear answer on the question 'why did this happen.'"