(Submitted by Amanda Hamm - image credit)
The province's top education official for anglophone schools is defending a new way of ranking school construction projects for government funding, a method that has been questioned by the auditor-general.
Deputy minister George Daley told a committee of MLAs that the so-called "tiering" system was put in place to respond to rapid, unexpected demands for more school space in fast-growing urban areas in the last five years.
Without a quick way to evaluate the need for new schools, "we knew we were not going to have physical space for students in classrooms," he said.
Daley said the first time "tiering" was used in 2018, the department had to rush to buy land for a new school in the Moncton area.
"The land was going quickly," Daley said. "If we didn't act at that point, we were going to have a serious situation in the Moncton area."
The tiering system also led to the approval of funding later that year for a new school in Hanwell in the riding of Education Minister Dominic Cardy, a decision that prompted accusations of political interference.
Earlier this week, New Maryland-Sunbury Progressive Conservative MLA Jeff Carr endorsed a report by Auditor-General Kim Adair-MacPherson that questioned the tiering system.
It exists separately from the department's "quadruple bottom line" or QBL formula.
Carr said on Tuesday that upgrades to Oromocto High School, which serves his riding and ranked high in the QBL system, were "pushed way over to the side" by the tiering system, allowing the new K-8 school in Hanwell, in Cardy's riding, to "jump the queue."
The debate over tiering also prompted new questions from parents in Grand-Bay Westfield this week.
They felt they were close to getting approval for a much-needed new school in 2018, only to see the Hanwell school come out on top.
"We were higher on the priority list a few years ago. We've dropped off and I don't understand why," says Suzanne Hohmann, vice-chair of a grassroots task force that supports replacing two aging schools in the town.
"We were a little bit discouraged because it seemed like we were further away from getting some solution in place than we have been in the last 10 years."
The group wants the Grand Bay Primary and Inglewood schools replaced, given the lack of facilities in the two schools. This year Hohmann's son is in a classroom that used to be the school library. The schools also lack gyms and music rooms.
Adair-MacPherson's audit says the proposed Grand Bay-Westfield school moved up in the QBL rankings in 2018-19 to become "the top ranked project" in the department's capital budget proposal that year.
But it wasn't chosen by the Liberal government that year.
The following year its score dropped, and it turned out its number one ranking was a result of "a data input error," Adair-MacPherson said. Without the error, the project would have ranked third in the province, she said.
When the Hanwell school got the green light in the new Progressive Conservative government's 2019-20 capital budget, "we were surprised, because the needs of the of the school and the community haven't changed," Hohmann said.
Daley told MLAs that the QBL system "was never, ever, meant to be the final evaluation tool on any of the projects."
When the system was put in place in 2014, school enrolments were declining and the province needed a way to figure out which aging schools should close or be replaced.
"The focus was looking at several of those buildings and closing them and building one newer school that could still host the student population," he said.
But beginning in 2016 "there was a sudden change in the population trends in the province."
Surprise population growth
Population growth was accelerating in the Moncton-Dieppe area, the return of early French immersion required the creation of new class units, and the arrival of Syrian refugees led to more school-age children in cities in southern New Brunswick.
One analysis projected a 24 per cent increase in the student population on Fredericton's south side, and by 2019, there were more than 1,000 new students in the Moncton and Fredericton areas, Daley said.
"When the population increase started to go up," Daley said, "the [QBL] tool was not effectively taking into account areas with population increase."
With the new PC government taking office in 2018 and looking to reduce spending, midlife upgrades of older schools were deemed a lower priority than new schools to accommodate the rapid growth, Daley said, and the new Moncton and Hanwell schools were approved.
Hohmann said Thursday that she couldn't comment on the need for the school in Hanwell, but the two Grand Bay schools remain inadequate for the students who attend them.
"I don't know what the right solution is, but we need a path forward to get there," she said.
Robert Fowler, the Anglophone South district education council chair, said he believes the QBL is a "good tool" as long as it is adjusted yearly, and he accepted the explanation that it didn't take space needs into enough account.
Fowler said he asked around after the Hanwell decision in December 2018 and was satisfied the location of the school in Cardy's riding wasn't a factor.
"I'm satisfied that the minister stayed out of that decision and it was a good call," he said. "I have no qualms with Hanwell being built."