PC MLA backs criticisms about system that let new school 'jump the queue'

·4 min read

A Progressive Conservative MLA is endorsing the auditor general's criticisms of a ranking system for school construction projects that saw a new school being built in the riding of Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

New Maryland-Sunbury MLA Jeff Carr told CBC News he's disappointed "hidden criteria" that look at space capacity in area schools allowed the new K-8 school in Hanwell to "jump the queue."

Carr said during a legislative committee meeting Tuesday he was surprised Auditor General Kim Adair-MacPherson wasn't told at first about the so-called "tiering" system, which is separate from the Education Department's "Quadruple Bottom Line" (QBL) measurement tool.

He said she should have been told that it existed and that "it was used or seen to be used as leverage to have a school built in a certain part of the school district."

Adair-MacPherson said the calculation put the K-8 school in Hanwell at the top of the priority list for scarce provincial funding in 2018, despite no evidence it outranked other proposed schools in areas with similar space issues.

The department refuses to incorporate the tiering system into its QBL calculations.

"That concerns me," Adair-MacPherson told MLAs on the Public Accounts committee.

"Absolutely it concerns me as well," Carr responded, agreeing with her that space shortages should be measured as part of the QBL system, not separately from it.

"There should be a way to show over-capacity issues in those schools through the data."

CBC News file photo
CBC News file photo

There were nine schools in the province using six or more "modular" classrooms to deal with overcrowding in 2018, Adair-MacPherson said.

So her staff asked the department for evidence of how the tiering system ranked a Hanwell school "the number one pressing problem" for that year's capital budget.

"We did not get that evidence," she said. "That's why we had to conclude that we felt it was not an evidence-based decision."

The Hanwell school is now under construction in the rural community bordering Fredericton.

The Quadruple Bottom Line system uses a range of quantitative factors to measure which construction projects – whether new schools or midlife upgrades – should be priorities.

In her report last fall, Adair-MacPherson said her auditors were a year into their review of the QBL system when they learned of the separate "tiering" system.

It awards extra points to proposed schools in areas where there's a lack of class space and a growing population.

Auditors were at first told that the calculation that boosted Hanwell's ranking was an error, she said. Then they were told it wasn't actually an error but "a change in methodology."

The opposition Liberals have accused Cardy of politically interfering with the process to get the school in his riding approved ahead of others.

Cardy angrily denied that last fall and said Adair-MacPherson was injecting "narrative flourishes" into her report and "spreading information that is bluntly incorrect."

Ed Hunter/CBC News file photo
Ed Hunter/CBC News file photo

In contrast to his PC colleague, Carr made a point Tuesday of warmly thanking Adair-MacPherson for the audit.

"I think we have to pay attention to what you offer us and try to make the changes for everybody involved," said the MLA, who was shuffled out of the PC cabinet after last September's election.

Carr said the 51-year-old Oromocto High School, attended by many students in his riding, was high on the priority list for a midlife upgrade until it was "pushed way over to the side" by the introduction of the tiering system.

"While I'm very happy for the residents of Hanwell, I am and have been terribly disappointed for the students and staff of Oromocto High School," he said in a written statement to CBC.

Asked Tuesday about Cardy's criticism of her audit, Adair-MacPherson said she was not blaming individual politicians.

"That's not my role. I do not intend to go there, ever."

She pointed out that the previous Liberal government applied the tiering system to a francophone school in Moncton that it approved for funding.

"It's not just a question of what we found with Hanwell," she said. "It's the whole package here."

Adair-MacPherson's audit last year looked at 15 examples of school projects out of 142 that had been assessed using the QBL tool.

She said there was no written policy on the separate tiering process until her office began asking for documentation.

Answering questions from People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, Adair-MacPherson said it wasn't clear where the tiering decisions came from.

"That's where we got to the point where we could not determine how the ranking within the tiering exists," she said. "We got answers that would beg more questions."

In its official response to Adair-MacPherson's audit last October, the department said the tiering calculation was "objective" and is used to identify "urgent" space shortages in areas with growing populations.