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April 26, 2010
Supply
House Committees
Meeting topics: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HALIFAX, MONDAY, APRIL 26, 2010

 

COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE HOUSE ON SUPPLY

 

4:00 P.M.

 

CHAIRMAN

 

Mr. Gordon Gosse

MR. CHAIRMAN: Good afternoon. The Committee of the Whole House on Supply will now be called to order. We will continue the estimates of the Department of Education.

 

The honourable Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.

 

HON. KAREN CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I would like to say good afternoon to the minister and to her staff, familiar faces, and I was just joking with them, I've seen them hanging around the halls for the last three days, so finally we get a chance to speak with them and I know that they will be providing the minister with support. I've been in her seat there, I know how important that staff support is. I do also understand, and I don't expect the minister to have all of the answers when I ask the question, but I expect staff will find those for her and be able to help her out.

 

Having said that, I will make a few comments about my reaction to the Speech from the Throne, if we could start there, and I did make these when I responded and I will make them again. The Speech from the Throne obviously picks the highlights that the government of the day is bringing in and does a little bit of an overview of what we and Nova Scotians can expect when the budget comes down.

 

In this province when we look at the departments that consume most of the taxpayers' dollars, the biggest departments and the highly-funded departments, we look at Health and we look at Education, Community Services and others.

 

 

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When I listened to the Speech from the Throne and when I read the contents of the Speech from the Throne, I was quite surprised, disappointed, with the lack of attention to education and public schools. In fact, as I went through that and as I listened, I noted there were two statements that referred to programs and public education, public schools and they did both refer to trades programs or programs in our high school that have more of a focus on skills training.

 

My disappointment was, there was not a full section dedicated to education - both assistance to universities and public education. I was nervous about that and I was afraid that I might be reading something into that that was not there. I thought by omission it was sending a message that education may not be a priority for this government. I know I've heard the minister make a commitment to the importance of education and I've also heard the Premier recognize and identify education.

 

I would suggest that there's no member in this House who doesn't recognize the importance of education. We also recognize that it covers a variety of areas and ages from early childhood through public schools, through post-secondary and on to adult learning. So to think that the scope of education is that broad and that there were two lines in the Speech from the Throne that spoke to the public schools education, I think there were others, along with me, who felt it was a serious omission.

 

Perhaps I can start with a question that I know the minister will be able to answer without perhaps seeking advice from her staff is, was this an omission?

 

HON. MARILYN MORE: I believe the Speech from the Throne represented some new direction that our government plans to take, I think actually the recognition that public education and post-secondary education in this province have a very strong foundation. This government wants to continue doing more of the same, could actually be taken by the honourable member as a compliment to her government who was in charge the last 10 years and invested quite heavily in public education as well as post-secondary. I think we're all grateful for that $123 million investment into the community college system a number of years ago.

 

I think actions speak louder than words and the fact that we, as a government, are investing over $1.4 billion in public education and post-secondary education in this province attest to the significance that we hold education. We're very proud to continue to talk about our province as a learning province. The work of both the Department of Education, the Department of Labour and Workforce Development, I think, is going to be very much a significant part of the solution of some of the economic and other problems that we're facing in this province.

 


To answer your question, education is very much valued and we certainly will be investing money as it becomes available through bringing back our Back to Balance initiatives and making sure we're working from a strong financial and fiscal foundation as well. Thank you.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: I would like to remind all members and all people visiting in the gallery that electronic devices are to be put on silent and ringers off at all times. I would like to make sure that everybody notices that. Now I will recognize the honourable Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.

 

MS. CASEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to the minister for her response. It doesn't ease my mind a whole lot because I believe that the minister recognizes and has articulated the value of education, but to say that the Throne Speech was setting a new direction, and to have public education not be identified as part of that new direction, is still disconcerting. So my question to the minister would be, what new direction in public education should we anticipate?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, there are a couple of initiatives that were mentioned in the Throne Speech. I believe the commitment to expand the community college system by 250 seats - and in the budget we've set aside $2 million to achieve that and those seats will be recognizing demand, not only in terms of what students are looking for, but also employers, and also matching that with the labour market demands that this province will see in the future - those seats will be available from one end of the province to the other.

 

Another initiative in the budget that I believe was perhaps referenced in the Throne Speech as well is our new innovation and growth fund. We're setting aside $2 million to enhance the concept of community schools. All those details haven't been worked out, but it appears that it will be mostly enhancing the service delivery capacity of school facilities to better meet the broad needs of families and residents in their communities. So, for example, I think we're looking at expanding the SchoolsPlus program to more boards and to more schools and this certainly will be an asset and be a very efficient and effective use of taxpayers' dollars in the delivery of programming and services. So those are just two of the areas that we plan to move forward on.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, perhaps I need to make myself clear, I'm talking about public school programs. I'm not talking about post-secondary or assistance to universities. So the response about the community college seats is not part of the public school programs. So I guess my question would be, I will repeat it, what direction in public school programs can we expect to see - new direction, to use your words, new direction?

 


MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, there are a number of initiatives being discussed at Education, and as the honourable member well knows, the Department of Education and the government don't work alone in terms of public education. There are significant education partners that have a lot of say and need to be involved in the process. Some of those partners have reinforced the concept that we need to make sure that the curriculum and the programming in public education are as modern and matches the needs of graduating students today. So even though we haven't worked out all the details, I think it's fair to say that we're seriously looking at a major review of curriculum and programming to make sure it meets the needs of students in the 21st Century.

 

In terms of the response of the department to several of the studies that were actually initiated by the former government, we're trying to look at what can be done to better engage students in public education and to also meet the special needs of sub-populations like African-Nova Scotians and children with special needs. It's a broad approach that we're taking, but we want to do more, we want to make sure that taxpayer dollars are invested and that we're using each one as strategically and smartly as possible. We want to get better value for our money and we want to make sure that we're meeting the current and future needs of each and every student in our school system.

 

MS. CASEY: The reference that was made to the education partners is one, of course, after a whole life in education, I'm quite familiar with all of those partners and the roles they play and how they provide a good pulse on what's going on in the communities and have some very good ideas as to what might be included in the new direction. We're talking about funding for public school education and we're not talking about sense of co-operation and planning, and so I'm not prepared to accept the answer that the education partners are contributing to the allocation of funding.

 

I believe, as part of the consultation process, they have been and will be an important voice that needs to be heard. Perhaps the most recent expression of interest and offering of advice from the education partners came during the Back to Balance road show by the Minister of Finance. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association was there and the message of Save Grade 2 was very loud and clear. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, the School Administrators' Association, home and schools, school advisory councils, all of those partners come together with a very strong voice in helping the Department of Education understand the needs within the public schools.

 

The message that they were delivering through the NSSBA and through the Save Grade 2 was that, in order to maintain existing programs in our public schools, they had done the math and they determined that school boards would be needing a 3.6 per cent increase, I believe it was. To say on the one hand that we value the voice of the education partners, I think, is important to acknowledge, however, to suggest that (a) they might be responsible for some of the funding is not accurate, and (b) to say that they were heard, I don't think is reflected in the decisions that were made by this government.

 


[4:15 p.m.]

 

I guess we can perhaps go there and say, what part of the message that the education partners through the NSSBA shared around the province, what part of the message, what part of the 3.6 per cent was not heard by this government?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I'm pleased the honourable member has raised the issue of the Save Grade 2 campaign. As I mentioned, I believe, in answering one of the questions on Friday, many people have stopped me and asked, what does Save Grade 2 mean? I was explaining to them that cutting a grade level in school is unthinkable and I think the education partners were trying to get across the message that not funding public education adequately would be unthinkable as well.

 

I find it a little ironic because I was actually involved in some of the early consultations by the Nova Scotia School Boards Association in terms of what they should do to raise the profile and interest of the general public for education. Some of you may realize that I'm an honorary life member of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association and I think I have the unique advantage being the Minister of Education because I was the parent and now the grandparent of children in the school system. I was a teacher and so belonged to the NSTU for a couple of years, I was married to a teacher for 30 years. I served on a school board for 10 years. I was a member of the home and school association, so there aren't too many of the education partner organizations that I have not been a member of.

 

I find this gives me a unique perspective on educational issues because quite frankly, I'm trying to view those issues through all those different lenses. If I can satisfy myself sometimes, then I think I'm satisfying most of the partners as well.

 

The Save Grade 2 campaign suggested, based on the information that they had, that a certain amount of money - $36 million - would be necessary to adequately fund public education. Now there's some disagreement over what was in that amount and what wasn't. For the most part, the $20 million additional funding that we gave to the school boards pretty much met all the needs. What has happened, though, is that in addition to that, government has asked every department to pass along a 1 per cent efficiency cut. That translated actually into a 0.7 per cent cut to funding to school boards because they also get municipal education funding as well. That's the reduction that many of the boards are struggling to meet over the next several months.

 


The day after the Budget Speech here in the Chamber, senior officials met with the superintendents, the chairs of the school boards and their chief financial officers. They received their profile sheets and that met a commitment to get that information out to them in a very timely fashion. I also had the chance to address them briefly that day. They have known, since our government went in, between the media and what they've heard officially from department officials in a regular, ongoing fashion, they understand the fiscal reality of this province. I don't think at any time they felt they were going to escape their share of trying to help this province get back to balance.

 

When I went around the province last summer and met with each and every board in their home administration office, we had some frank discussions because even by then we knew that there was a looming deficit, a structural deficit in this province. We talked about ways that they could be creative and use money, the funding that they do get, as effectively as possible, so they have been thinking and working on this for a number of months.

 

One thing - this 0.7 per cent efficiency reduction - the approach we've taken to that is not to force it on school boards, we've given them several months to work through, to make sure that what they do in their area matches their uniqueness and their needs. As I've brought up in this House before, you get very unusual circumstances. If you look at the Strait Regional School Board, that school board covers 20 per cent of the geography of Nova Scotia, with 6 per cent of the student population. That creates very significant challenges for that board, which would be very different from one of the other boards in the province.

 

The boards need to have some flexibility in matching the available revenue to their programming, to their transportation needs and to the facility structure that they have throughout their school board. They are all professionals, they understand the economic reality, they've been given significant new money to help ease the transition. Every indication is that the boards and senior officials are going to be able to co-operate with us and we'll work together to make sure that there's as minimal a negative impact on students in the classroom as possible. Thank you.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, if I could follow up with a specific question based on what you've just shared with me. Boards, if I'm clear on this, have been asked to do this efficiency reduction and they will determine where they can find the savings. My question is, if that is in fact true, what is the timeline that boards have been given to identify those efficiencies?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, as the honourable member well knows from her distinguished career in education and her time as Minister of Education, the boards usually make their budget decisions within a month and a half or so after the provincial budget comes down. So for most of them, as I understand it, they're either in discussion at their committee stage or at the board level in terms of matching the available funding to their program and transportation and other student needs.

 

MS. CASEY: I'm not sure I got an answer. I know the process but I'm also hearing from boards that say they are not able to do that. So my question to the minister would be through you, what is the timeline that boards have been given to identify those efficiencies?

 


MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, certainly the Department of Education works very closely with the boards as they're going through their budget process and if they identify pressures or particular challenges, then meetings are held to see if they can be resolved. So, for example, I know that senior officials are travelling to a board later this week to meet with them and to just clarify both the financial information that they have and what their options are and to help them mitigate any negative impacts of that reduction. I want to stress that there's $20 million additional dollars in funding to school boards in this province this year.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I've been through the process, I know how it works, I know what boards do, and I also know that there are boards that may find it impossible to realize those savings. So my question to the minister would be, since I'm not getting an answer as to when a timeline might be for them to have identified those, if a board is not able to identify those, what is the department's response to the boards at that time?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, well certainly, by regulation, boards are required to pass their budgets, I believe it's within 60 days of the provincial budget being passed. The Department of Education is not set on punishing any board that perhaps hasn't met that deadline. We're more interested in working with them, better understanding the challenges that they're facing, and trying to work out some options so that they are able to live within the amount of money that has been allocated to them for this year.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I know that the minister indicated that senior officials would be meeting with boards and I understand that that process has already started and it will continue. My question through you would be to the minister, have senior officials already met with the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board and, if not, when will they be?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, this Thursday the deputy minister and the senior executive director of Corporate Services will be meeting with the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board.

 

MS. CASEY: I'm pleased to hear that because I know that board has come forward, they are expressing a major concern with the inadequacy of the funding, recognizing according to what they're saying, that the increases in funding will not even allow them to maintain the status quo. So I'm pleased to hear that senior officials will be meeting with that board and I want to talk a little bit about a comment that was made with respect to the uniqueness of boards. It is true that the pressures in different boards are different, the geography there is different, the transportation costs are different, there are some unique challenges that exist in one board and not in another. We have some boards that have some very rural schools and we know the challenges and the additional costs to deliver programs to those rural communities and to those rural schools. We also know that the Hogg formula was designed to address some of those unique challenges.

 


So my question to the minister is this, how does the Hogg formula now respond to the individual challenges of boards?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I just want to clarify an earlier answer. Department officials are meeting with the board chair and the superintendent, not the full board, and I may have misled you by saying the board.

 

Yes, in terms of the Hogg formula, as the honourable member well knows, there are some cushions in there to make the transition in terms of declining enrolment a little easier for boards to react to. So there's a 2 per cent trigger and when a board has over a 2 per cent enrolment decline, there is some supplementary funding available to that board. This coming year that supplementary funding is going to be over $23 million to ease the transition as boards gradually make the reductions to reflect that.

 

[4:30 p.m.]

 

Certainly, I think it's about 3 per cent of the student population overall, on an average population base, in Nova Scotia in terms of enrolled students in public education, is going down. I've been quoted before, but certainly by 2020 we anticipate that the student population in Nova Scotia is going to be the same as it was in 1910. So that's going to be a significant change that boards have been adapting to. Certainly the demographics, even with family-friendly policies in this province and doubling our immigration rate, we don't see that that downward trend for student population is going to change.

 

There's also another sort of cushion in the Hogg formula to help boards with a number of small schools. So if there's a small school with an enrolment of 100 students or less, they get some supplementary funding as well. Currently, for example, Annapolis gets funding for one small school, Cape Breton for three, Chignecto for 11, CSAP for one, Halifax for seven, South Shore for nine, the Strait board for four, and Tri-County for four. So overall there are 40 small schools being funded out of that supplementary funding to the amount of $6 million.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank the minister for that breakdown, the detail. Perhaps I could get a copy of that from you at some time, those boards that are receiving the extra funding for small schools. I would also at this time, if I could, ask for a list of the boards that are receiving the additional 2 per cent because of declining enrolments.

 

MS. MORE: If I could just make a general statement and then we will make sure that you get the details. Currently all but two boards are eligible for the enrolment supplementary funding and the two boards whose decrease is not over 2 per cent yet are CSAP and the Halifax Regional Board.

 


MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, if I could also get a copy of that. It's obviously a bit alarming to me, and I'm sure it is to you, to recognize that the number of boards that are relying on that is on the increase and if we're down to two, then I guess that causes me to ask the next question; the provisions that exist within the Hogg formula to do those two things that you've just identified - the extra funding for small schools and the declining enrolment percentage - are those two significant changes in the way we deliver funding to our school boards enough to cause a review of the Hogg formula?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, those two supplementary funding pools have actually been available from the beginning when the Hogg formula was first implemented and I guess I would suggest the fact that they're being used means that they're working well and they only represent about 2.5 per cent of the public education funding that goes to school boards. So it's a small figure in terms of those cushioning effects and, obviously, the boards that are not benefiting perhaps would like to see that money reallocated to some of the other areas in the formula where they actually get funded, but it's very difficult, I think, to come up with a formula that covers the uniqueness and the challenges of every single board.

 

Certainly there was considerable consultation, as the honourable member would well know, when the Hogg formula was first developed, and it seemed to meet most of the challenges and needs of school boards in that time. Certainly I've been asked if we would reopen that and reallocate some of that money, and my answer has always been that until we have significant new money available for public education there's no sense taking away from some boards in order to give to other boards. We're trying to develop a fair and equitable public education system across this province and there's a certain stability now because the formula is well known, well understood.

 

The impacts - we've had experience with the impacts and I just don't see the sense of stirring the pot, unnecessarily causing a lot of disruption, when we really don't have a lot of extra or new money to put into that particular funding pool. Down the road, certainly, but we keep a close eye on it. The boards are very up front in terms of how they're dealing with the allocations that they have and we'll work very closely with them and certainly, if any part of the funding formula, or any board is struggling, they know that they can sit down with department officials and try to work through any other possible options.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I'm not surprised that people have been asking the minister about a review of the Hogg formula. That happened quite regularly for the three previous years and I'm not surprised. However, with the increase in the number of boards that are taking advantage of the 2 per cent, and with the statement of the minister that we are continuing on a decline in the number of students in our schools, that prompted my question, is it now time to do a review? I would like to say to the minister that a review does not necessarily mean a change. Sometimes when you begin the process of a review, you may, at the end of that review have confirmation that the formula you currently have is the right one.

 


Sometimes going through that process helps answer the questions that have been asked by those people out in the communities and in the public who constantly ask the question. So a review to confirm, if that's what the results would show, that this is the appropriate formula may be something that the minister would want to consider.

 

If I could, I'd like to just switch gears a little bit with respect to public school programming and I'd like to speak to the minister and ask some questions about targeted funding. I'll let your staff get the right page there because I think they know the question. Are there more categories of targeted funding now than there would have been two years ago?

 

MS. MORE: The targeted funding part of the formula has actually changed very little over the last number of years. I believe probably about 15 per cent of money, funding, that goes to school boards for public education is targeted. Obviously, most of the funding covers salaries for educators and support staff.

 

Certainly if there are any curriculum changes, sometimes money is targeted or dedicated to that - I believe, for example, Safe Schools. There was some money set aside to ensure that boards could do that. I think generally boards don't like targeted money as much because it doesn't give them as much flexibility in terms of dealing with the challenges they have within their area, but as you well know, there is a value to having targeted money. It protects certain aspects like special education, for example, that the province and boards feel are very important.

 

MS. CASEY: I've had the debate and the discussion with boards about the value in targeted dollars. I maintain and I'm sure the minister does as well that if there are provincial programs that we want to make sure are provided and made available in our schools, sometimes we need to target the dollars to make sure that boards have the funding they need to deliver that. My question, specifically, is money for text books targeted?

 

MS. MORE: Taking that category of textbooks, I'm sure the honourable member remembers, because it was part of her government's budget last year, it was a one year deferment for textbook funding and educational resources. That took it down from $8 million to $4 million. There was a promise made to the school boards by the former government and we've certainly honoured it, we've increased the textbook allocation back up to $8 million. What you may be leading to, and perhaps I'll answer it now, is the fact that even though we've told the boards that to give them a little bit of flexibility to deal with this 0.7 per cent efficiency reduction, they have to spend 75 per cent of that amount on textbook and educational resources, but if they need to, in order to balance out the needs in the other part of their budget, if they need to, they can access the remaining 25 per cent after discussions with department officials.

 


So even though most of it is targeted, we've given them a little bit of flexibility because some of them actually have a number of educational resources, you know, in storage and ready to be used in the classroom. So depending on their particular situations, they may not have to use all of the money targeted for textbooks this year. So we've given them a little bit of flexibility there to help them meet some of their other budget pressures.

 

MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, I certainly was concerned about flexibility with the use of textbook dollars and the decision the boards can now make to redirect some of those dollars for other needs. Obviously, I have a concern about that because I know you're only talking about 25 per cent of their allocation that can be redirected or that they can have some flexibility, but my concern is the whole issue of textbooks and we could spend a day talking about textbook allocation, there are lots of sides to that argument, but I appreciate the information and I'll be interested to see how many boards, and I will probably be asking a question sometime later, how many boards will have to take some of their textbook dollars in order to cover other costs? I know you can't answer that question now but I would be interested and I'm sure you'll be interested, and that's something that will need to be monitored at the department level.

 

I want to ask a quick question about, because I think my time is running short, a question about the tuition reduction strategy that was implemented by our government with respect to bringing tuition in our universities to the national average and, as you would recall, having been in Opposition at the time and knew the concerns that students were raising about tuition and the fact that I was quite proud to be part of a government that introduced that strategy and laid out a plan that would bring the university tuition in our province to the national average by the year 2010, so we are in the last year of that strategy. So I guess my question through you, Mr. Chairman, to the minister would be, where are we with that reduction strategy as we now are in the year 2010?

 

[4:45 p.m.]

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, well, certainly I just want to start this part of my answer by saying that we expect to meet that target of being at the national average by the end of the year. As you would well understand, it's a moving target because the situation is changing in all the other provinces so it's not just a fixed amount. Currently we're second, I believe after Ontario but we expect to see, with the increases being provided in assistance, and I'll get into some of those details in a minute, that we expect to be in the middle of the pack by the end of the year.

 

So if the honourable member wants to, I can give some detail on what's happening. We're really pleased that this coming year we're going to be able to return $1,283 of the Nova Scotia beneficiary back to all students and there's also going to be for the first time a reduction of $261 to out-of-province students. This is something that student organizations have been asking for. They recognize that a significant number of post-secondary students come in to attend our universities from outside Nova Scotia. This year we're able to give them some benefits of that bursary as well.


Also, as the member would well know, there's a continuum of supports in terms of student assistance. It starts from freezing tuition to providing student assistance, to providing support to them when they've graduated. We also have, on the other end of things, a retention rebate. I think it's $7,500 for community college graduates and up to $15,000, I think, for university graduates.

 

Knowing that students have different needs, both in terms of their ability to access post-secondary education, in terms of the supplementary support they need during that process and their student debt when they graduate, we've tried to provide that continuum of supports, financially, all the way through. I do have to give credit to the former government, certainly most of those were initiatives at their call - and especially with the MOU to the universities, that was a way to freeze university tuition. I would say that most people are quite satisfied with the reductions and the assistance that's provided.

 

MS. CASEY: I'm pleased to hear that the minister has acknowledged that we are in the last year of that and the benefits that it provides. It's important to note - and we did at the time when we introduced that - that it was a bit of a moving target and the projections for the increase in tuition at the national average became part of the deliberations and part of the formula that we used to see if we could bring the two closer together.

 

Your comment about, we're second to Ontario, perhaps you could clarify, does that mean second to Ontario with respect to the cost of tuition? (Interruption) It does. Okay. So then my question would now be, recognizing we are in the last year, recognizing that the plan was put in place and the strategy is working, recognizing also, however, that what's happening in other provinces will have an impact on that national average, my question would be, what plans are in place to make sure that we don't miss a beat, so to speak, and that when this strategy, the last year of this strategy, unfolds, which it does in 2010, what is the go-forward plan to make sure those concerns of university students, that were identified and addressed through that strategy, continue to become a priority and we do not allow ourselves to get in the situation where we are not at the national average?

 

MS. MORE: There are several ways that we're recognizing that ongoing commitment. Certainly a couple of the increased benefits I talked about in my previous answer, in terms of the bursary, will take effect this Fall, so their impact will be felt throughout the coming academic year.

 

The memorandum of understanding with the universities, there's a year left in the current MOU and so that process will be starting up in the very near future. I know we'll certainly be a critical part of those deliberations. We'll certainly have to be looking at the Nova Scotia University Student Bursary fund and what future additional commitments may be required there to keep us at an average university tuition rate.

 


MS. CASEY: One of the messages that students gave us loud and clear when we were looking at working with them to try to bring the costs for university education, something that would be within their means. One of the messages that they gave us, repeatedly, was they believed that the support from government would have a greater impact on their ability to go to university if those dollars were up front rather than after they graduate.

 

One of the things that we did, as a government, in order to get some of that bursary money there, was to redirect some of those dollars. We did not have to put any new dollars in at that time, but we did redirect those dollars so that students were able to get the money up front, because what they were saying to us was, a graduate tax credit at the end of a four-, five- or six-year program is useless if we don't have enough money to even get into the program. I would expect that students are probably feeling the same.

 

I would be interested in knowing if, in fact, the voice of students is still saying we need our money up front, and how that translated into this government putting a lot of money into the graduate tax credit. The two just do not seem to come together, so perhaps the minister could explain how those two jive.

 

MS. MORE: The honourable member is quite right. I've had several meetings with the two major student organizations and their message loud and clear has been, put everything into the up front support. I've tried to explain to them, as a government, we have to be looking at a broader range of interests and certainly my government is committed to creating jobs and keeping skilled and well-educated youth in our province. We see the benefits and the purpose of the Graduate Retention Rebate to do just that.

 

It's not meant to make university more affordable or more accessible to young people, we have other programs that do that. We have this one initiative coming out of the Department of Finance that will encourage young people to stay in this province, to start jobs here, start their careers, raise families and become productive and long-term citizens.

 

Certainly, I would have to say that bringing out-of-province students into Nova Scotia to attend university is probably one of our greatest immigration initiatives because approximately 22 per cent of those out-of-province students remain and become residents and workers in this province. The Graduate Retention Rebate is meant to assist all graduates from post-secondary, whether it be university or community college, to take a strong look at and hopefully make a decision to stay and work and raise their families and live in Nova Scotia. It's one of a number of programs, it has a specific purpose and it's not, as I said, on the affordability or accessibility side.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The time has expired for the Progressive Conservative Party.

 

The honourable member for Bedford-Birch Cove.


MS. KELLY REGAN: I'm wondering, has there been any additional funding for EPAs allotted in this budget?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, certainly, additional funding has been put into the funding for school boards to cover the negotiated increases in wages but, you know, how the school boards allocate the money that they have for different educational purposes in terms of professionals and the support workers is a local decision. So we've covered the increase in wages and I have no idea whether there's going to be more, less, or the same number of educational aids.

 

MS. REGAN: I do understand that each board decides, we were just wondering if there was anything specific above and beyond that. The other night I was at a Halifax Regional School Board meeting and they have a long list of schools that are slated for builds and rebuilds and that's not the ones that have been approved, this is a list that would be coming up after the ones that are in the process have been built. I'm wondering is there any thought to setting aside any money for that right now or is that just going to be contingent on what happens in those budget years?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, this budget actually includes $140 million for everything from new schools to A & As, which is additions and alterations, and also the purchase of new school buses. In addition, we've provided $11 million for energy refits for the school boards and that is, you know, a considerable investment in capital and major renovations. Certainly all boards continually plan ahead and, you know, they get considerable money for maintenance and sort of the minor repairs. So I'm not sure if any of the schools you saw might be listed for some of their internal allocations in terms of their maintenance funding.

 

MS. REGAN: I believe it was last week we had the rankings of high schools come out by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and we had sort of a wide range of scores and rankings. Does that concern you at all that we have schools that seem to be doing, you know, really exceptionally well and then others in the same sort of area that are not doing as well according to the ranking by AIMS and does the Department of Education sort of look at that, do they pay any attention to what AIMS says, and do you make any changes in the way things are run based on what AIMS is saying?

 

[5:00 p.m.]

 


MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I just want to start my answer by suggesting that the government and the Department of Education always appreciate a healthy debate about public education. Certainly the annual release of the AIMS rankings does that, you know, the media cover it well, people often chat about it, but I have to be frank, we don't base our decision making on the AIMS report because we don't believe in ranking of schools. We do significant provincial assessment and boards and schools also have assessment processes and it's that more scientific evidence-based data that we use to make decisions to improve both our programming and also to indicate where the problem areas are and where some students might need additional support. That information is released in the minister's annual report to parents and that will be coming up fairly shortly. So it's that kind of assessment process that we have found through experience to be the best foundation for making informed decisions.

 

MS. REGAN: It's interesting that you mentioned evidence-based data because from what we've been hearing from student groups like ANSSA, which represents 85 per cent of the students across the province, they have great qualms with the government's plan to give a Graduate Tax Credit and, in fact, the evidence shows that these don't work. What I hear from parent after parent, student after student, is that their kids cannot get jobs.

 

There was a series that just ran in the ChronicleHerald, by Roger Taylor, where he talked about the fact that kids who have graduated from university keep coming to him and saying I can't find a job; I can't get an entry level position; I can't find work and, guess what, now I have to go to Alberta. So we give them all the Graduate Tax Credits we want, but on the flip side, if they can't find a job here in the first place, they're going to have to go to Alberta. I can't tell you the number of parents I run into in my riding and I say how is Katie, or whatever, and they say Katie has gone to Alberta, she couldn't find a job around here.

 

I'm wondering, first of all, what is the evidence for that particular tax credit, if we're going to talk about evidence-based programs, number one, and number two, why wouldn't we do something that would give kids a leg up and give them the experience like, for example, instead of taking that money for the tax credit, we could have put it into a program to give kids jobs out of school, whether they were in the provincial government or whether they were with private business, but at least give them a chance to learn something?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I think there were several themes there so let me start to answer and if I miss something, you can let me know. As I've said many times on this floor, the Graduate Retention Rebate is meant to encourage graduates from community college and universities to stay in the province, to start their careers here, to raise families and to stay as long-time residents of Nova Scotia.

 

Certainly we have a significant number of those graduates already staying, and as I mentioned in an earlier answer, we have a significant number of out-of-province students who come, particularly to our universities, and we're very fortunate because our universities, you know - we call ourselves the university capital of Canada - and because of the number of universities and the fact that they're able to offer a particular niche experience that is different from another university, it gives considerable choice to students both from within Nova Scotia and from outside Nova Scotia.

 


Currently, about 22 per cent of the students who come from out-of-province stay after graduation and a significant number of our residents who graduate from university stay in the province. In fact, I believe it's something like 97 per cent of students from Nova Scotia, who attend community college, work in the province. So the Graduate Retention Rebate is meant to add to those numbers. It's meant to entice people who might be thinking of moving away to take a second look at staying here and raising their families.

 

Now, if you're asking if we, as a government and as a province, can do a better job of matching some of the newly graduated students with job openings in this province, I'm sure, yes, we can do a better job, and we're trying to. Certainly through Labour and Workforce Development we're putting a lot of the demographic information, the information about what professions are available, where the openings are, we're putting more and more of that on our Web site to provide a clearing house of information for people who want to know what careers are opening up here and where the openings are throughout the province.

 

So I think we can do better and we are providing more and more information. We're also having Parents as Career Coaches, which is a program in high school that's becoming very popular because a lot of parents and guardians recognize that their young people are coming to them to ask about potential careers in Nova Scotia. They want to have the most up-to-date information on labour market studies and where certain training and other programs are provided in the province. So, they want to make sure the information they give their young people is as reliable as possible.

 

This has been an excellent partnership with Labour and Workforce Development and the community college system and the public education system so we're going to be doing more and more of that to make sure young people have the information they need to make informed decisions. Thank you.

 

MS. REGAN: I do understand the theory behind the Graduate Tax Credit. I just don't think there's any scientific evidence that shows it actually works, so if we are in fact talking about evidence-based data, we haven't seen any of that. In fact, we've seen the exact opposite in other provinces where they did introduce something like this and my Party had it on our platform, not this past election but the election before, because we thought it was a good idea. But then when we saw that the evidence showed that it doesn't work, we turfed that particular program.

 

The problem with having a tax credit, it doesn't work unless you're actually making some money. The problem is that kids - not so much in community college because those community college programs are directly linked toward providing openings that they can actually place. But when we're talking about universities, kids are coming out of universities and they cannot get that first job. That first job is so crucial to being able to stay here. If you don't have a job, you don't have a choice. You can offer all the tax credits you want, but you have to have a job to be able to live. We are not doing enough in my view in this area.

 


ANSSA has been very vocal as has Canadian Federation of Students. They don't think this is a good idea either. I don't understand why we have gone down this road where there is no evidence-based data this works. It's kind of like the coyote cull where we're going to start killing all the coyotes but there is no evidence that works. In fact, we're going to end up in a worse situation with the coyotes because they'll have more babies and they'll be stronger and all of that.

 

I'll move on to my question. (Interruption) I did digress. Anyway, enough of my speech. I'm wondering how much the university review by Tim O'Neill is going to cost?

 

MS. MORE: We're trying to find that information in terms of the cost of the review. I just want to add a couple of things to my previous answer, in view of some of the comments you made after I spoke. I think better matching students and their area of interest to jobs in their area of interest is a priority of everyone. I think that's one of the reasons that the co-operative placements have been so popular both at the secondary level and at the post-secondary level. It gives practical experience within the workplace and it also accustoms the students to the work ethic, the reality of that particular career choice and it broadens their network of potential employers. I think it's going a long way toward creating both summer and part-time jobs and potentially placement after university and high school and community college.

 

In response to your concerns about the Graduate Retention Rebate, sometimes you need to have some track record or experience with a particular program in your own province. Money that's not used in that rebate is not spent, it's not wasted. If we don't get the take-up that we're anticipating, then that money obviously can be reallocated somewhere else. That's going to give us some of the basis of evidence and help us adjust any of those initiatives. Certainly, it's not money wasted, I want to make that point very clear, and we'll be tracking the uptake on it and we'll see how it works. Our situation is quite different from other provinces and we think it's worth testing it here to see if it might be one of a continuum of efforts to retain graduates here in Nova Scotia. We don't have the information in terms of the costs, but we will get that information and table it, thank you.

 

MS. REGAN: I take it from your last answer that you're committing to spending the money that isn't used to pay the Graduate Tax Credit out on job training programs for new graduates?

 

MS. MORE: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that money that is not spent in the budget is obviously available for other uses. If the numbers of graduates from university and community college - well, community college can hardly go up. I mean, I think it's at 97 per cent so obviously it may be a matter of looking at more that universities can do to make sure that the connections are made with the communities and potential career sectors out there; or it may be a matter of readjusting and looking at some other assistance initiatives to help people who graduate from the universities.


Our government is open to change. We understand that the culture and the climate out there is changing, I don't literally mean the climate, but the factors impacting on young people making decisions about where they're going to work and take further study, it changes, and so we want to be flexible enough to adapt to the current realities.

 

MS. REGAN: As a mother of three children you can probably tell that I would really like it if there were a lot of opportunities for our children here when they get out of university, in fact, I have one graduating in May, although she will be continuing studies. I do appreciate the minister's comments around Co-op. As she knows, I did a Co-op degree in university and I literally walked out of the university and into a job immediately, and I do think that made a difference, so I'm all in favour of that kind of thing.

 

Earlier last week I had asked you some questions around student loans and upfront funding for students involved in Co-op programs. Could the minister update us on the results of the meeting that happened on Friday?

 

[5:15 p.m.]

 

MS. MORE: I believe, actually, the meeting was on Thursday, and I hope I'm not telling tales out of school, but there was a lot of interest in possibly expanding student assistance, but it was recognized that there could be impact on the university programs. Every university has a different length of time for their Co-op placements and so it was decided before any final decisions were made, there would be some consultation with the universities around that possibility. No final decision has been made, but it's being reviewed very seriously.

 

MS. REGAN: Thank you, I appreciate you updating us on the progress and I'm sure as things proceed we'll hear more about it. In terms of Tim O'Neill's review, will your government close or amalgamate universities if the review proposes such an action?

 

MS. MORE: As I've said several times, I'm not going to prejudge the recommendations, the conclusions and options that Dr. O'Neill is going to provide. I believe his interim report is going to be ready in May and then he's giving a final report to the Premier in June. He's looking at a broad range of information and research and best practices around efficiencies and effectiveness. The post-secondary unit within the Department of Education is providing the research secretariat function for Dr. O'Neill and it certainly appears that he's doing a very broad-based intensive background search on many of these issues. So we certainly await with much interest both his interim and his final report.

 


MS. REGAN: Mr. Chairman, we do know that one of the student groups, ANSSA, had a very short meeting with Tim O'Neill and they were very pleased to have that meeting with him. They've been able to make a written submission but they haven't had the long, broad consultation with him that university presidents have had. I'm wondering if the minister would be so kind as to encourage Dr. O'Neill to have a good, long meeting with them because they're the ones who are most affected by what is going to happen here. Yes, people who are employed at universities will certainly be affected by what goes on but these students, this is their future that we're talking about.

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, while I appreciate the interest of student organizations to be more involved in this process, we've certainly left it up, as a government, to Dr. O'Neill to determine his approach, who he speaks to, and to what extent. So I wouldn't want to interfere with that. He's on a very tight timetable and I know he's trying to meet with as many of the pertinent stakeholders as possible. Certainly I'm sure if there were any issues that he had discussed with the students that he needed more information on, I have no doubt that he would go back and seek that information from them. We're very pleased that student organizations were a part of that consultation phase.

 

MS. REGAN: With the greatest of respect, sometimes you don't know that you're missing information unless you actually have a conversation. Sometimes you think you have it all and then you discover upon further examination, so I would just urge the minister to consider talking to Dr. O'Neill and mentioning that to him.

 

To move on, will you renegotiate an MOU with the universities?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, yes, we certainly anticipate that there will be a third memorandum of understanding and we expect that process to start fairly soon actually.

 

MS. REGAN: Mr. Chairman, I do want to make the point, I didn't do this at the beginning of my questioning time, that I will be sharing my time with the member for Kings West. So I'm just wondering, minister, have you done anything to push for per-student funding from the federal government and, if not, will you?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, we have followed up with other departments but you can recognize that there are many aspects of the government that would be interested in this issue, you know, every department from the Department of Finance to Intergovernmental Affairs, Education, and a number of approaches have been made to the federal government over the years. Their position has not changed and I'm sure that we will continue to press our point in terms of equality and it's to the benefit of all Nova Scotians if we can get that formula changed. So we certainly will be pursuing that as well.

 


MS. REGAN: I do know that the Leader of the Third Party was asking you some questions around money that went to each of the boards. So would it be possible for me to get the amount of money that has gone to each board, or that will go to each board out of this budget? I think you indicated that all except for two school boards will get supplementary funding because of the losses in student enrolment, it just seems to me that if everybody but two is getting it, then the two that aren't getting it are being penalized by not getting it. So if we could see the breakdown, where it's going, who is getting the supplemental funding, and what the spending per student is on education?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, there's probably more detail that we could table if you could identify what's missing after I give you some general answers, but in terms of the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, we've been able to increase theirs by $1.173 million; Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board is getting a $2.7 million increase; Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, $2.7 million; CSAP, $1.3 million; Halifax Regional School Board, almost $7.5 million more; South Shore Regional School Board, $2 million; Strait Regional School Board, $1.3 million; and Tri-County Regional School Board, $1 million. Did you want it by category as well?

 

MS. REGAN: I'm not sure what you mean by category, I'm sorry.

 

MS. MORE: Well, within the Hogg formula the boards get their allocation, a certain amount is for program funding for special education, enrolment supplement, school support, student transportation, property services, class size supplement, governance, school management and support, regional board management, textbook credit allocation and formula adjustments. Then there are some other initiatives as well. So when they get their funding profile, which they did the day after the budget was tabled here in the House, they got the detailed information, the profile for each of those categories and their entitlements under the Hogg funding formula.

 

MS. REGAN: Perhaps in the interest of time, if the minister could simply table that chart rather than going through each one. It would move things along because we could probably be here all day describing what each board got, in which categories. Perhaps she could just speak to the issue of having the CSAP and HRSB not getting the supplemental funding, and what that will mean for those boards in the per student funding?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, those two boards were the CSAP - the Acadian board, and the Halifax Regional School Board and that's because their enrolment decline was less than 2 per cent. So, from day one in terms of the implementation of the new funding formula back in, I believe it was 2005, every board knew that if you were under a 2 per cent decline you weren't eligible for the supplement, and if it was over 2 per cent, you were. I think about half the boards were eligible from day one, and a few more - their decline has significantly increased and so they're now eligible to the point that there's only two where the decline is not as heavy.

 

You asked an earlier question about the per student funding and it varies by board. I could just quickly run down, if you're interested, Annapolis is $8,062; Cape Breton, $9,140; Chignecto, $8,363; CSAP is $10,240; Halifax is $7,473; South Shore, $9,326; the Strait, $10,193; and Tri-County is $9,039. So that's an average. If you average them all out, it's $8,323.


MS. REGAN: Mr. Chairman, perhaps if we could have the minister table that chart as well, that would be most helpful. I look at those numbers and there is one that's glaringly smaller than the others, and I do realize that transportation is part of the equation, so that might be part of it. Also, we do know that HRSB has a larger percentage of children who have special needs. I'm just wondering what the justification is for Halifax Regional School Board being funded on a per-student basis so very much less than the other boards.

 

MS. MORE: It's a common phenomenon across Canada that in urban areas, because of the concentration of student population, you're able to have efficiencies that you wouldn't necessarily have when you're spread over a large geographic area with fewer numbers. I've mentioned before, the particular challenge of the Strait Regional School Board, their school board covers 20 per cent of the province in terms of geography, but only has about 6 per cent of the student population. That requires 97 per cent, I believe, of their students to be bused, so their dynamics, the factors that are the cost pressures in their board, would be very different from a relatively urban board like the Halifax Regional School Board.

 

The board that gets the most money for all the different categories, that averages out to the highest in terms of per student cost, is the CSAP at about $10,000 and that's because it covers a number of boards throughout the province. Most of the students have to be bused and so their costs, obviously, are quite different and higher than many boards that can have neighborhood schools and a significant portion of their student population attend those neighborhood schools. The challenges and uniqueness of each of the boards is reflected in their funding allocation from the province and that's the reason for the variation, thank you.

 

[5:30 p.m.]

 

MS. REGAN: It's interesting that the minister does mention the CSAP because, in fact, what I've heard from parents who have their children enrolled is how terrific the programs are for children who have learning disabilities, et cetera. In fact, I'm aware of one cocktail party where people couldn't believe they were talking about going to school in the same city and then they finally realized, no, one parent was talking about the grade programs at her CSAP school for kids with learning disabilities versus the kids who were in the English program who did not seem to have the same kinds of programs CSAP had for their kids who had learning challenges.

 

I'm not for a moment suggesting that we should be cutting anything that's going to CSAP. I applaud them for being able to offer those kinds of programs. I'm wondering, what I have heard a lot of since I was elected was I have heard from a lot of parents who are deeply distressed by what they feel is a lack of consistent help from the school board for their children who have learning disabilities and, in some cases, their children just simply aren't eligible for TSB because they may need a program assistant, they may be non-verbal, that kind of thing. I'm just wondering, at what point are we going to be directing more money to help these students achieve their full potential?


MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, we invest considerable money into public education in all of the school boards. In this upcoming budget almost $126 million is being invested into special education and I can't speak to the specifics of parent satisfaction with a CSAP school versus parent satisfaction with a school in the English school board, but what I can say is that the department is trying to provide more support to school boards in terms of learning disabilities. Within the last year or so a consultant has been hired who has a lot of expertise in learning disabilities and that person is tasked with working very directly with all the school boards to make sure that the money is well invested in a continuum of supports within all schools.

 

Certainly there is a Special Education Advisory Committee to the minister, and to the department, that is continually looking at ways of improving those supports. It's a serious issue. You just need to have a child with special needs to understand the impact on the child and the family and extended network. We just want to make sure that every child in Nova Scotia has the best possible chance of achieving their full potential. So that's our challenge. Again, are we doing enough? Probably not, but we are certainly trying to set aside as much money as possible for all those supports.

 

MS. REGAN: I'm wondering if the minister could outline how much funding has been allocated to the Options and Opportunities program. Is the program still being expanded this year, and I'm wondering, do we have a list of the schools where it is being expanded to, at this point?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, this year we have over $400,000 of additional money set aside for Options and Opportunities. I have to say this isn't a large expenditure but it's to meet the commitment. So if it was in Grade 11 last year, then it's to enable those students to continue on in Grade 12. It's to extend the programming in schools where it has already started. Currently we have over 1,600 students enrolled and that has quadrupled since its introduction. I believe the member may know already that graduates of O2 are guaranteed admission to the Nova Scotia Community College, if that's the post-secondary route they want to take.

 

We have O2 in 46 schools across the province, so we're very excited. It's working well. I met a number of the students, teachers, parents and future employers at a panel, at a celebration of the O2 program at Prince Andrew last month, and I was just so struck by the enthusiasm of the young people. One of them is going on to university and he has been working in a lab with I think it's Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and as a result has a summer job because of his O2 placement and I wouldn't be surprised down the road to see him come back and work in that lab someday. It has certainly been a great connection. They're learning a lot and I know you fully appreciate the value of that program. So, we're expanding it as money allows, but we're not leaving students hanging out there. If they started it, we're continuing it on for the next year until they graduate from high school.

 


MS. REGAN: And this will probably be my last question unless I need a clarification on the answer, but I'm just wondering, what progress has been made to expand the Early Childhood Development Initiative and are there any plans or funds for expansion in this budget?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I just wonder if the member could elaborate, is this the Early Childhood Development, if you could just give a little more information about what program you're discussing?

 

MS. REGAN: Does that come under Community Services you are going to tell me, or, right, we'll just leave that alone and now I will hand things over to my colleague, the member for Kings West.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West.

 

MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thanks to my colleague for sharing her time. I'm pleased to have this opportunity, minister, along with your staff, to ask a few questions. Education, of course, is never too far from my mind. It has been a big part of my life and professional commitment and my interest and passion remains very high.

 

One of the programs that the previous government brought into place in an experimental, in a pilot manner, was the Pre-Primary Pilot Program at 19 sites across the province. The three-year program revealed to Nova Scotians, revealed to parents and communities and, of course children, a tremendous value in early education. There were many lessons learned. There were many very positive deductions made from those schools. I'm wondering if you have any plans to package those good things, those good practices, and work them into either a daycare setting or offer them in a manner to school boards that could potentially pick up on them with some type of community partnerships to have them realized for the future benefit of our children?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, that's a very comprehensive question because there's so much going on. I just want to start by saying that the department fully recognizes the value of early learning and early intervention. Certainly the research that is becoming much better known indicates that significant developmental and learning happens before the age of three. So the Education Department shares the interest and responsibility for early learning with a couple of other departments, specifically the Department of Community Services and Health Promotion and Protection.

 


Anything that we can do to improve readiness and ability of children to enter and learn in elementary school is of interest to education. We don't have primary responsibility for some of those initiatives. However, we do fund, through our African Canadian Services Division, a program called Four-Plus, in two schools in the province and you may be aware that two school boards - the Halifax Regional Board and the Strait Regional Board - continue to fund out of their funding. They use provincial and municipal money for this, but there's no direct provincial funding going into it for early years' programming, like one year prior to school entry.

 

Probably the most direct involvement of the Department of Education is in the SchoolsPlus initiative. This is a way to sort of coordinate a number of services and programs of various levels of government, community agencies and organizations within the elementary school or sometimes it's a family of schools. I believe in Amherst it's the Amherst High School and it's a whole family of feeder schools. This is a way to better use public funding in terms of collaborating across agencies and across levels of government to better support young students and their families. That's just sort of a brief menu of some of the initiatives, but we certainly recognize the importance.

 

I believe one of the research studies in North America suggests that for every dollar invested in early learning and child care, you save $17 on the other end, because it's not needed for remedial or corrections or supports. You're dealing with conditions and maximizing the potential of young people early on. Certainly, in this day and age, where we have to be so careful and cautious and spend money strategically, I think that's an important ratio that we have to remember. We certainly want to improve on what we're able to do for early learning in this province, and the Department of Education will certainly play a role in that, thank you.

 

MR. GLAVINE: Indeed, minister, that last statement sounds like an endorsement of trying to do more in the early childhood sector.

 

I don't have a lot of time so I just want to hit a few other areas. The minister talked about the Hogg formula, which has become the adopted formula for the province to provide the major framework for funding to our school boards. One of the areas that I've had presented to me on many occasions, maybe in less times by the Halifax board but certainly every year consistently starting with Dr. Jim Gunn with the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, they've had successive years, since the inaugural year of the Hogg formula, they have been below the 2 per cent threshold. Being below the 2 per cent threshold, and some years of 1.3 per cent, 1.5 per cent loss of students, they have this accumulated deficit, in many ways, for being funded.

 

In two parts - number one, I'm wondering if you have looked at, or the department will be looking at, a way of saying the number one or two least funded boards in the province, because of the Hogg formula, will get some attention. Secondly, do you think that perhaps the time has come that now we need to review both the merits and the deficiencies of the Hogg formula, and eventually make some necessary changes?

 


[5:45 p.m.]

 

MS. MORE: I'm sure we could spend hours discussing the Hogg formula, but it has only been in operation for five years, and it seems to be working as it should. For example, the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board initially was not eligible for the supplement around the decline in enrolment, but they currently are. Their enrolment decline is about 2.9 per cent, that's over 2 per cent, so that has triggered their inclusion. They're actually getting, this coming year, $1.2 million in benefits because they're now eligible for the supplement for declining enrolment.

 

You might be interested to know that their decline is actually continuing to go down, it's up over last year, so they'll continue to be eligible, as I just mentioned. I think it's fair to say that any of the boards that were not eligible for certain supplements were somewhat critical of those supplements. Now that many more of them are eligible, they see the value in having those supplements and they're much easier about it.

 

For example, there are only two boards not eligible for the supplement with declining enrollment, that's the CSAP and the Halifax Regional School Board. All the others are now getting money under that. It's meant to cushion the impact of severe decline in enrolment. As we know, and certainly you as a professional who's retired from education, would appreciate it's very difficult to . . . you just can't have a certain number of students. They go to school where they live. The boards have to deal with those numbers.

 

You might have 16 in a class, you might have 24 in a class. If you look at the average students costs or the amount of money that they're getting, that's going to change just by the efficiencies that a board can make, depending on how many students live in that population around those particular schools. You well know and understand how sometimes these statistics look obvious, but they're not. They're very complex and the boards are doing their best to work within a number of different parameters around funding.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West, you have approximately eight minutes left.

 

MR. GLAVINE: While I was aware that they had one year out of five in which they are able to benefit from this supplement within the Hogg formula, which in this case is a very good thing. However, there have been the challenges for at least four of those years.

 

Which brings into focus the fact of declining enrollment and the impact on small schools in particular. We know that this is going to continue to be a fact of life in Nova Scotia. I know how the minister, through her Party, in the past, has rallied around the preservation of small community schools. I wonder, minister, if you could give me and give us in the House, the short version of your view, your philosophy around the value of small community schools.


MS. MORE: Well, I'm not sure how long the honourable member has for me to respond to that.

 

I have looked at this issue from every lens possible - as a board member and as a parent in a community. I've been involved in initiatives that have closed schools, kept schools open. It's probably the most emotional issue that any educator or any parent can be involved in around education. I think my short answer would say that it depends on the situation. When a small school is the last public building in a community, I think the arguments and the factors that one is looking at may be quite different than if it's one of several or more public building in a community.

 

I think the money that we've set aside as a government in our innovation fund, we want to support public infrastructure in communities. Whether that building remains a school or whether it becomes a public delivery mechanism for public services and services based in the community may be another part of the equation. Every situation is unique and I think that's why we have developed a very comprehensive provincial school review policy.

 

One of the changes in the policy is to recognize and to value the input from communities. But it's also to recognize that there are some community values and factors that need to be looked at, not just educational ones when reviewing school buildings. As you well know, it's a very complex issue, no two situations are the same and I think that's why we've tried to put in place a structure and a process that enable all that information to be shared with the public, that they have a full involvement in making sure that the board has the most up-to-date information and understands the impacts that those decisions will make. Hopefully, reasonable people will make reasonable decisions in the best interests of both the youth and the community.

 

MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, possibly my last question here so, two parts around teacher training. We know that a report was carried out on teacher education in the province. I'm wondering where some of those recommendations are, where that report is in terms of the Department of Education. One of the areas that I sometimes will hear from school principals and staff is that teachers coming in from the four different universities that educate our teachers, there are considered differences around classroom management. That's obviously in good measure as to the emphasis that is placed on that area in teacher training. I'm wondering if the minister could provide a comment on the establishment of common requirements for our teachers going in the classrooms in the future.

 


MS. MORE: There are a number of initiatives happening at different levels, certainly in terms of the recommendations of that earlier study. We're currently in the process of setting up the advisory board for teacher training, so that is ongoing. Also, throughout Atlantic Canada, there is a mechanism for the ministers and the deputies to work together on teacher training issues. Currently there are meetings going on with the deans of education at the various universities that provide education training, and they'll be looking at some of those issues.

 

Of course, the other side of it is the professional development, because most of our teachers are currently in the system, and we want to make sure that they have all the learning opportunities possible.

 

MR. GLAVINE: With just a short time remaining, I was also wanting to know the minister's view on the autonomy that school boards should or shouldn't have in terms of developing some local curriculum initiatives.

 

MS. MORE: Certainly, I believe there is a role for school boards in curriculum development and any of the provincial initiatives that happen through the Department of Education always involves educators. It's never done in isolation from what's happening in the classroom and what needs to happen. That consultation with educators, our education partners, especially the school boards, is ongoing.

 

I mentioned in an earlier answer that there seems to be agreement among the education partners that taking a look, reviewing the curriculum in a general sense, to make sure it's relevant and modern and meets the needs of the students in the 21st Century is something that we're going to consider very seriously. There are models within the province. CSAP actually do their own curriculum development with support from the Department of Education and we'll be quite interested to evaluate that and see the outcomes. There are a number of opportunities for local boards and educators to get involved with curriculum development. We encourage that because we need to have input from all those groups in order to move forward.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member's time has now expired.

 

The honourable member for Cumberland South.

 

HON. MURRAY SCOTT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to the minister and her staff for being here again tonight. I just want to take the minister back to a Friday evening. The minister will recall on Friday evening - and I understand the minister cannot talk about a specific case or a specific issue with people's names and I understand that - but I guess I just want to go back to the issue that has been brought to my attention around the assessments for those who have either learning disabilities or those with a couple of other disorders I mentioned on Friday evening - ODD or ADHD.

 


What I'm being told is that some of these assessments are taking two years or longer and I wonder if the minister can tell me if these assessments are something that she and her department are looking at, if there's anything in the budget this year that will help speed up those assessments. I'm sure the minister will agree that when you have a child who's in need of additional help and resources, when they're unable to have the assessment done, it's a lot of time for them that they're waiting and waiting, and they don't see any kind of hope in regard to that additional resource being brought in. So I wonder if the minister can tell me if assessment is an issue she's looking at and, in fact, if this budget has anything in it to help parents with the children I mentioned earlier?

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, it is, of course, of interest to the department and the ratios with some of the specialists have been improving. Year after year we've been putting in more money, each I think of the last 10 years. Certainly, a lot of this has evolved and developed under the former government and we give them credit for improvements that have been made. So, I must say, as minister, I've certainly walked into an inherited situation, both fiscally and in terms of supports for children with special needs.

 

[6:00 p.m.]

 

So whether some boards invest the $20 million additional dollars that have been put into public education of some of these areas, I'm not sure. Several boards spend considerably more than the dedicated funding for special education on those needs and we'll work with boards to encourage them to improve the wait lists and the ratios, but I think we all have to be realistic. We're living in tough fiscal times and there's not going to be a lot of additional money to put on some of the issues, as important as they are, but we all recognize the impact of waiting on children with special needs requiring special assessments and their families. It's a very unfortunate situation and as soon as we can do better, we'll provide more funding.

 

MR. SCOTT: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister for her answer and look forward to that. I think what I heard the minister just say, the additional $20 million that's in this budget this year for the school boards, I understand then that's not targeted money, that $20 million, they have the discretion to use that as they feel within their programming?

 

MS. MORE: For the most part it's not targeted but, certainly, there are some increases in targeted funding that you would have to take out of that. Boards are, you know, as I recognized earlier in a question to one of your colleagues, there's not a lot of extra money and so boards are having to rationalize and review everything they're doing to make sure that money is being invested in the right place at the right time.

 

MR. SCOTT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to the minister, I appreciate your answer.

 


Mr. Chairman, just so you know, I'm going to share some of my time here with the honourable member for Inverness. Minister, I just want to switch gears here a little bit. There are two projects in Cumberland South I wanted to ask you about, one was the Springhill High School, which was a multi-year renovation that started last year. In fact, I was in there this morning just to see how much they've progressed and I have to say they're doing a nice job. I believe we're entering the second year, I think, of a four-year renovation program. So I'm wondering if you could tell me what the status of that is, particularly how it's reflected in this year's budget. The other one is the River Hebert High School, there was also an announcement for a renovation to close the elementary and to renovate that junior-senior high into a P to 12. The committee has been struck, they're working very hard. I believe the consultants are doing design work now to try to move that forward. I wonder if the minister could tell me what is in this year's budget and what your plan is for that as well - so it is River Hebert, P to 12 and the Springhill High School renovation

 

MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I have the details on that. I'll start with the Springhill Junior/Senior High. As you know, it's in progress. The amounts of money that were announced for each of the years have been put into the budget for a total of $7.763 million. We're anticipating it's going to be finished, I guess, in 2012-13. For example, this coming year, $1.7 million has been set aside; the next year, $1.4 million and the final year, $700,000.

 

In terms of River Hebert, it's a general renovation. It's in the design stage, so there's no actual renovation or construction underway at the present time. This year $2.3 million has been set aside, next year $1 million and then $2.4 million, for a total of $6 million. It is expected it will be ready in 2013. Thank you.

 

MR. SCOTT: Thank you, Chairman, and thank you, minister. If I understood you correctly, you said it is a total project value, at this point, of $7.63 million for Springhill and this year's budget is $1.7 million - so the 2010-11 budget will be $1.7 million - and $1.4 million for 2011-12 and then $700,000 for the last year, which is 2012-13.

 

In River Hebert it was $2.3 million for this year - is that the 2010-11 budget for River Hebert?

 

MS. MORE: Yes, it's $2.3 million for River Hebert, $1 million next year and then $2.4 million in the final year of the general renovation. Thank you.

 

MR. SCOTT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you again to the minister for the answer. On River Hebert, you said it's a general renovation, but that is to make River Hebert into a P to 12, is it not?

 

MS. MORE: Yes, that's correct.

 

MR. SCOTT: One last question on that renovation money, are you able to tell me if, on the Springhill project, which will take us, I believe, to 2012 or 2013, if that includes the additional money that has been required for an addition to the gymnasium at that high school?

 


MS. MORE: I don't have that level of detail with me but I can get the answer and make sure that it is tabled. Thank you.

 

MR. SCOTT: Mr. Chairman, again, those are all the questions I have for the minister tonight. I want to say thank you to you and your staff for being here. I know sitting over there, in our own time, it's an interesting time, and it is also a time of opportunity to ask questions both provincially and obviously on behalf of our constituents. I appreciate it very much and I'll share the rest of my time now with the honourable member for Inverness. Thank you, minister.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Inverness.

 

MR. ALLAN MACMASTER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you minister and staff for the opportunity to ask a couple of questions. I'd like to start out just making a couple of comments to pass along. One is on the workload experienced by teachers. I had an opportunity to meet with some teachers in the area that I represent and one of the things I asked of one of the more experienced teachers was - or one of the things she had offered was - that a lot of young people have greater emotional needs and problems. She has noticed a change from the time she started teaching until the present. That is contributing to greater teacher workload.

 

I know there's no easy solution for that, but I wanted to put it on the record as a legitimate concern and school seems to be one of the only positive structures in some young people's lives.

 

Now where this starts to compound for teachers is there are what's known as - you would be very familiar with this - multi-grades where you have perhaps a Grade 4 and a Grade 5 class put together. A lot of the schools that I would represent in the area are rural schools and sometimes they have up to 32 students in a Grade 4 or 5 class so while it meets the cap for each class when you combine them together it's going over the cap for a standard class. There have been a couple of instances of that and they wanted to raise that, they wanted me to mention that.

 

Also, in some cases, there are some families who are transient and this can become a problem because at the start of the school year, students may be registering late and this school board has already allocated positions. I did ask them if there was anything that could be done, if they had any solutions and there wasn't anything specific that jumped out at the time but it was a concern and I noted it. I wanted to take the opportunity today to pass it along to the department.

 


The other item I'd like to mention is in a rural area, program-based funding is more advantageous to a rural area than population-based funding or enrolment-based funding for obvious reasons. Unfortunately the population is declining in the area I represent and the school board that services the area.

 

I just wanted to quickly slip in those two comments because they're a couple of priorities that were raised to me. I do have a question, a quick one, on standardized testing. In Grade 3 and Grade 6 there's a sense that multiple choice can be difficult to understand, especially for Grade 3. Does the department have any comment on that and whether that should continue? This would be standardized testing with multiple choice for Grade 3.

 

MS. MORE: I don't have any personal experience with the multiple test or questions in the assessment but certainly the methodology and the content of the questions is developed by teachers, by educators in Nova Scotia to reflect what they're teaching in the classrooms. Certainly that aspect of it doesn't seem to be creating any results that bring any concerns to either the teachers or the assessment services within the department. It's always something that we continually review and we want to encourage a way of assessing children's learning in a way that creates the best possible outcomes for them. It's under constant review and certainly if anything was indicated as being a problem area it would be checked into.

 

MR. MACMASTER: If I might pass on a comment that was made to me was that there's a great amount of time that teachers seem to have to spend to help the students understand how to answer a multiple choice-type questionnaire or test. I think that would be an issue for them. They felt that that type of test almost took too long to explain to the children how to do it than it did to actually do the test and get the results and they were concerned about that. I appreciate your answer and I just want to pass those thoughts along for the department's consideration.

 

The next question I had was on attendance issues and there was a report in promoting student engagement. It was a report of the Minister's Working Committee on Absenteeism and that was September 2009. The issue here is that, in some cases their students are not attending classes, and some of the teachers I've spoken with say this is a real issue for them because in some cases they can't penalize the students for not attending. They might be able to get the marks to pass the course but if they're not attending, that could be symptomatic of other problems the student is having, and it's not healthy for the students, it's not showing a commitment. I think what the teachers wanted was to try to have some kind of an ability to hold the students to account, or hold their parents to account, to ensure the students actually go to school and respect the fact that they should spend time in class and learn in the classroom. Do you, or does the department, have any thoughts on that and is there anything you're looking at to try to encourage attendance?

 


MS. MORE: Well, this is an issue that's near and dear to my heart and to the department. There have actually been three major reviews of this issue over the last five years and it is very difficult to get a consensus on what to do because, quite frankly, we have to be careful that we're not just dealing with the symptoms, but we're actually looking at the root causes of this issue.

 

This report, the last, the third report was delivered to me last year, as you suggested, and I met with the committee. I expressed to them some of my concerns and suggested that I needed to take time to personally better understand what they were dealing with in the classroom and what the impact of their recommendations would be. So I'm very pleased to say that the department set up four focus groups for me that I facilitated. One was with students, one with parents, and two with principals and other educators. We discussed the issues, the recommendations, the possible impacts and also what was happening in various school boards to alleviate some of those issues already.

 

It is the most complex of issues, because everything you talked about and deal with has impacts on three or four other issues, and it just permeates everything we're doing in public education. So, I want to make sure that before I, as the minister, make a response to the last report and recommendations that we fully understand and that we don't have any unintended consequences. There are varying degrees of seriousness on the issue of absenteeism in different schools and different boards. It's interesting to see how some local facilities and administrators have been able to deal with and overcome the situation. So we want to learn from what's working well in the province. We want to make sure that we don't do any harm.

 

[6:15 p.m.]

 

For example, if we came in with a cap and said, well, you missed 20 classes this year, you're out of that particular program. What happens? How do you make the exception for a family that has, perhaps, pulled their child out of school to go to B.C. for two weeks to visit a dying grandmother, or how do you handle the case of an elite student athlete who misses classes in order to partake in competitions and championships? How do you deal with a child who's having severe emotional problems, or being abused at home, or being bullied and is afraid to come to school? Those are the root causes. We need to be looking at those issues and make sure whatever policy we develop and implement, it's not going to hurt some other student or group of students. So it's very complex; we're taking it very seriously and we want to make sure that what we come up with actually helps the situation and doesn't make it worse.

 

MR. MACMASTER: Mr. Chairman, with that I would like to allow the minister to finish off estimates with her closing comments for the department.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Education.

 


MS. MORE: I neglected to introduce my staff today at the beginning so I would like to thank Darrell Youden, who is the senior executive director of Corporate Services, and Dr. Alan Lowe, senior executive director of Public Schools, for helping me with questions today.

 

Mr. Chairman, I would like to make a few closing remarks, if I may. I want to thank all the members for their questions and I will ensure, and my staff will ensure, that any of the details that we've committed to getting back to you, we will and we'll also table that. If any member is interested in more information regarding any topic raised over the last couple of sessions, my office would be pleased to set up a presentation or a meeting with one or both of my colleagues to explain the issue further and provide any information you may wish.

 

Nova Scotia has an excellent education system that is actually the envy of many jurisdictions. I have to say it is a privilege for me to serve this province as Minister of Education and to work alongside the skilled and committed educators and administrators and support staff that we have in this province. I want to thank them and parents and everyone, bus drivers, everyone who plays an important role in providing quality learning and teaching in Nova Scotia. Their commitment and passion are very much appreciated. This is what makes Nova Scotia a learning province.

 

At this time I would ask that the proposed budget for the Department of Education, for public education and assistance to universities and the proposed budget for the Department of Labour and Workforce Development be approved.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E4 stand?

 

Resolution E4 stands.

 

Resolution E5 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $60,643,000 is granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of Assistance to Universities, Department of Education, pursuant to the Estimate.

 

Resolution E14 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $182,918,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Labour and Workforce Development.

 

Shall Resolution Nos. E5 and E14 carry?

 

The resolutions are carried.

 

On behalf of the committee members, we wish to thank the honourable Minister of Education and her staff for their presentation. The 40 hours allotted for debate in Committee on Supply has now expired. The Committee will take a short recess at this time.

 


[6:20 p.m. The committee recessed.]

 

[6:29 p.m. The committee reconvened.]

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time allotted for debate in Committee of the Whole House on Supply has now expired.

 

The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.

 

MR. DAVID WILSON: Mr. Chairman, as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Supply, I would like to report that the subcommittee has met and completed its maximum of 40 hours of debate allowed for consideration of various estimates assigned to it.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall all remaining resolutions carry?

 

Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.

 

The motion is carried.

 

The honourable Government House Leader.

 

HON. FRANK CORBETT: Mr. Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and report the estimates.

 

MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.

 

[The committee adjourned at 6:29 p.m.]