Nova Scotia

N.S. education minister denies 'schools for votes' suggestion

Nova Scotia's auditor general says he can't find any explanation for why three new schools in Liberal-held districts were approved — just one in a string of stinging criticisms in Michael Pickup's latest set of reports.

Tory MLA Tim Houston says he believes the schools were built for political gain

A new school being built in Bridgetown was among three singled out by Nova Scotia's auditor general as lacking explanation for why they were approved. (Department of Education)

Nova Scotia Education Minister Karen Casey is denying the government built three schools for political gain after a report by the province's auditor general found no reason for the new construction.

In his report released Wednesday, Michael Pickup said he could not find any explanation for why three new schools were approved in Liberal-held districts, including Bridgetown and Tatamagouche which are held by Premier Stephen McNeil and Casey, respectively.

It's just one in a string of stinging criticisms Pickup made in his latest report, which also looks at ways to protect critical infrastructure during emergencies.

'Schools for votes'

Tory MLA Tim Houston was blunt in his assessment of how things look.

"Let's call it what it is: it's schools for votes."

Progressive Conservative MLA Tim Houston says the construction of three new schools is purely political. (Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party)

But Casey said any suggestion work was awarded based on politics is "a ridiculous comment to make."

"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 said. "The request for Tatamagouche was in long before we formed government."

Pickup raised a number of concerns with the way capital planning happens for schools.

"Overall, the department is doing a poor job of planning for new or renovated schools," he wrote.

Gov't approved low-ranking projects

He singled out the decision to spend $21 million on a new high school in Eastern Passage "despite no evidence of need" and the fact it would leave Cole Harbour and Auburn Drive high schools at less than 50 per cent capacity.

Michael Pickup said risk assessments have not been completed for many government services and assets. (CBC)

While government approved the top 10 projects identified by the public service evaluating committees that review capital submissions, it also approved four projects worth a total of $63 million that were ranked significantly lower.

The new schools in Bridgetown and Tatamagouche were among those four submissions, coming in at 26 and 28 on the priority list.

"We are lost to understand why these schools were approved given the analysis provided to us," said Pickup's report. 

The auditor general's latest report says the department does a poor job of planning for new or renovated schools. (CBC)

Pickup found it was executive council that approved those two schools as it has the final call on capital projects.

Work awarded on fairness, outstanding needs

Aside from overall rankings on the capital list, Casey said cabinet also awards work based on "regional fairness" and "the most outstanding needs" within communities.

The work in Bridgetown has been on the books since the days of the former NDP government, she said.

The government is busy making decisions about what to do with P3 schools as the end dates of their leases approach, but Pickup's office found the province "has failed to appropriately manage P3 decisions to date," despite 17 years to prepare.

No plan to protect critical infrastructure

On the issue of critical infrastructure, Pickup said risk assessments have not been completed for many government services as well as assets like roads and bridges.

One example is the Canso Causeway, where there is no plan for how to quickly manage an emergency response if something should happen to the only link between mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

There is no plan in place to manage an emergency response if anything happens to the Canso Causeway, says Pickup. (Canadian Coast Guard)

"Nova Scotians want comfort that the government of Nova Scotia and the private sector are working together, so that plans are in place to quickly recover when things like natural disasters or other bad events occur," said Pickup in a video released with his report.     

Private sector needs to be involved

Pickup said the government has not assigned a lead department to look after critical infrastructure, which includes roads and bridges, hospitals and communication systems.

The province has a plan in place to take care of critical infrastructure dealing with the health sector but isn't sure if plans exist for any of the other sectors.     

The province doesn't own a lot of the critical infrastructure in the province, such as the Lingan power plant in Cape Breton. (Wendy Martin/CBC)

"We noted the government has not made effective partnerships with the private sector who indeed own most of the critical infrastructure in Nova Scotia, like energy."

Pickup said the government needs to be able to work with those businesses to make sure they can recover quickly from an emergency and return life to normal for Nova Scotians in a timely fashion.   

Pickup's report also focused on child care and government computer software used to manage licensing and permits.

With files from Jean Laroche

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