N.L. school district didn't ask for new high school in town where premier lives

·4 min read
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey attends a press conference in St. John's on July 14. A new high school was announced in April in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, where he lives. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey attends a press conference in St. John's on July 14. A new high school was announced in April in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, where he lives. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District never requested a new high school announced in the town where Premier Andrew Furey lives, an email obtained by CBC/Radio-Canada shows.

In the email, district CEO Tony Stack requested an explanation from government after money to plan the new facility appeared unexpectedly in the last provincial budget.

"[The new school] was not one of the three priorities we identified nor has there ever been an infrastructure request for a high school in PCSP [Portugal Cove-St. Philip's]," wrote Stack in an email to deputy education minister Greg O'Leary on April 18.

"Are you able to provide any background to this announcement that may assist in responses or in planning for a catchment adjustment?"

Stack declined an interview request, but Education Minister John Haggie said Wednesday the decision "came out of the infrastructure and budget discussions" and that the facility will allow more than 300 students to avoid being bused to St. John's.

In a statement, the Premier's Office said, "The MHA for the area, the mayor, and other members of the community have long advocated for a new school, as enrolment pressures have increased in the area over recent years.

"Where the premier lives is completely irrelevant."

The new school in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, a town bordering St. John's to the west, does not appear in the district's most recent list of prioritized capital requests. The document was provided to the government in 2017-18 and hasn't been amended since, according to a district spokesperson. It details a number of yet-to-be-approved requests to replace schools described as "aging" or "ill-equipped to offer current programming."

4 school projects in budget, 3 recommended by district

Money to plan four major school infrastructure projects was included in the last provincial budget, tabled in April. The district had recommended three of them: new schools in Cartwright and in Kenmount Terrace, and the redevelopment of Dorset Collegiate in Pilley's Island.

"The school district got their three priorities. And as I said, through our due diligence, this government and the Department of Education, we identified this [other] pressure point for this year," said Haggie.

Haggie said 317 students from Portugal Cove-St. Philip's are currently being bused to St. John's for class. That number could rise to about 400 by the time the new school opens, he said, adding that for the first time in 50 years, school enrolment in the province increased in 2022-23, jumping by about 1,000 students.

In a statement, the Premier's Office said the increased student enrolment "made it prudent to discuss new school priorities that may not have been previously identified within the NLESD."

Haggie said it became obvious to the government there was a need.

"The community had been really keen on doing this and the local MHA [interim PC Party Leader David Brazil] had been a vigorous advocate for it," he said.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Major impacts on feeder system: district CEO

In the same email from April 18, Stack wrote that the new high school in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's "will profoundly affect the PWC [Prince of Wales Collegiate] feeder system."

The student population at Prince of Wales Collegiate, described by Haggie as a "landmark school in St. John's," has steadily declined in recent years. Enrolment slipped below 600 in 2021-22. In each of the first eight years of the 2000s, more than 800 students attended the school, according to data posted to the government's website.

Prince of Wales Collegiate takes in students from just two junior high schools: Leary's Brook Junior High (379 students in 2021-22) in St. John's and Brookside Intermediate (540 students) in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's.

"There are areas in metro [St. John's] where the distribution of students will need to be examined as the demographics change," Haggie said. "We've seen a bulge come through in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's. We're seeing some aging infrastructure in the area around Prince of Wales Collegiate and its feeder schools."

'I support the decision'

Haggie said Wednesday it was too early to say how many students will attend the new high school in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's or how much construction will cost. There is currently no timeline for completing the project.

The new high school was announced while Tom Osborne was education minister. Osborne, who was unavailable for an interview, became health minister on July 6, when he swapped cabinet portfolios with Haggie.

Asked whether he would have announced the new school had he been education minister in April, Haggie said, "These decisions are decisions of government. We take them collectively. I support the decision."

Education Department spokesperson Tina Coffey said the last provincial budget included $1.25 million for planning infrastructure projects, including four new or redeveloped schools but also improvements to the National War Memorial in St. John's. The department could not provide a further breakdown of costs.

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