HALIFAX, MONDAY, APRIL 11, 2011
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE HOUSE ON SUPPLY
Ms. Becky Kent
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The Committee of the Whole House on Supply will come to order.
The honourable member for Argyle.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D'ENTREMONT: Madam Chairman, it is a pleasure to be with you all once again on this Monday evening to talk about the budget for the Department of Education.
I know we talked a lot about Reading Recovery last time, so I think I'm going to try to stay away from that one. I think we had a lot of information provided to us during our couple of hours of questioning last time. Again, I think it's going to be the issue of devil is in the details - to see what the details of the new reading program will be, how it will impact students, who is going to be included in that, and all those questions that I know we've had and the Official Opposition has had as well, so I think we'll move on to a number of other issues.
I do want to go to the Fall when this whole debate on 23 per cent cuts over three years and basically how that transpired. I know that numbers were provided in trying to have a reasonable discussion with the school boards, insofar as what would it look like to do this, what would it look like to do that - which is, in my mind, a reasonable discussion to have when we're trying to find ways to have efficient departments. Ultimately, in this huge budget that we have in the Province of Nova Scotia, there are big chunks of money that are used up by Education, Health and Wellness, Community Services, Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and the likes - the bigger departments - insofar as you're trying to find savings to balance a budget, you have to look at some of those bigger departments in different ways.
So I'm just wondering, as that Fall, NSSBA really takes over the issue, makes it more of a media issue, maybe what some thoughts around that are and how do we pull back from that, and how did the three-year discussion become a one-year discussion?
I know that's pretty general, but there you go.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Education.
HON. RAMONA JENNEX: Madam Chairman, there was a planning exercise that was undertaken with the school boards, because it's very well recognized that we needed to create efficiencies. We're funding an education system in the province that was really built and funded for a group of students who have now graduated. Unfortunately, over the last number of years we're losing thousands of students and, while we're losing thousands of students, the education budget kept increasing. What was asked of the school boards was to look at what they could do to create efficiencies - and they were given a number - and to dig deep and to look at areas if this would happen, what could happen.
If you're asking for a department to come back with what can you do to create efficiencies, you're going to get a certain answer, but if you give a number to target to, then you know that people have to really start looking at every program, everything that happens within their school boards, to come up with scenarios. They were never told that this was anything other than an exercise. This is something that departments do do when they ask for input, and this one unfortunately - and you're absolutely 100 per cent correct - it ended up in the media. Then a percentage was added on to that and what the public was hearing - and I know they were hearing this - they were hearing 22 per cent, but they didn't understand over three years and it created a great deal of fear, anxiety.
There were scenarios laid out in the public domain that bus drivers, school gymnasiums were going to close, which I still find kind of interesting how that would happen. That is totally unfortunate. Your question around how did the target come to a one- year situation? When I stepped into the department, I asked for staff, and the staff that I asked for are here with me today, Dr. Lowe and Mr. Dunn, and other staff and also the Treasury Board, and we looked at the information that school boards provided to us.
The interesting thing is because the school boards had gone through the exercise and had looked at efficiency, they dug deep and they went outside the box looking at ways that we could create efficiencies, I had at my disposal a large array of what I'll call puzzle pieces in front of me, ways that we could look at to create efficiencies in our system. It's because of that exercise that we were able to build the budget. But what we were building the budget on wasn't a number, we built the budget on a child in the classroom and what we needed within our system to make sure that the delivery of service would not affect that child sitting in the classroom.
The exercise that was asked of the school boards ended up - we just turned it this way, we got all of the information then we turned it the other way, and looked at, okay we have children in the classroom, how can we make sure that the programs, their delivery of service, how they get back and forth to school is not affected? And that is how we started building. So we didn't have any particular number in mind, we just started building the budget based on what we could do to make sure that the delivery of service to our children would not be in any way compromised.
After we did all the work around that, we added up the figures and that's where the budget was formed - from the child up, creating that scenario coming from the information that the school boards had provided to us. Now the school boards provided the information to the department, they did provide a great deal of information and data - and coming from my background and having been teaching in the classroom, I have to say that I did use a bit of that feeling of what it would be like in a school to help me form that budget. So at the end of the day we added it up and it was1.65 for the province.
Anyway, to answer the question, this budget number for this target was built from the ground up. We had other areas that we could have looked at, but I felt we needed much more research and I needed to have more information because we didn't want unintended consequences to any of the decisions that we made. So that is why we have reduced 15 per cent for administrators, that's what our target is - also we are looking at the group of people who work within school boards that are not providing direct service to children or are not in the delivery of services, and we are asking over the next three years that that number be reduced by 50 per cent. As everyone knows, we also looked at one program that we reduced the targeted funding for.
That's how the budget was built and I have to say that I have a great deal of admiration for the school boards, for the work that they are doing and for the efficiencies that they're finding within the system. Thank you.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Thank you, Madam Minister, for that answer. I know it was a pretty dire conversation that we were having with the school boards at the time. They were very worried about where things were going to be and you wonder sometimes if some of it was created or not. But I think the School Boards Association does a fine job in representing the school boards, and the school boards of course, with their elected members, are there for all good purposes to protect the interests of the children within their districts.
The question I have though, as we talk about trying to be student-centred, and it's about the students, and it doesn't really lay it out as a budget document is done, is the issue - and I'm sure Frank has this - how much are we spending per student? People use that as a comparative to other provinces, of how we're funding our children compared to others. Maybe the first question is what is our funding level per student and how does that compare to other provinces in the country, if you have some of that detail?
MS. JENNEX: Madam Chairman, before I give you the number, I just have to say that it is very difficult to compare provinces and their funding with each other. I think that that's one thing that I've heard some of our partners say, that we're the second lowest funded or whatever, but in Nova Scotia we have a smaller province with under a million people and other provinces have different geography, they have different ways of delivering their service, and they also fund different things. I just want to say that it's hard to compare one province to another because we're not all exactly the same in how we deliver service and what we pay for. That being said, we, per student in Nova Scotia, it's $10,300 per student, that is how the funding works.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Madam Chairman, it is difficult to figure out as even you look at this budget and as the numbers are laid out. Even if you just take Public Schools Education Funding, which is the box on Page 8.3 of the Estimates and Supplementary Detail, and maybe you sort of divide that and you get some kind of number, but is it a true number because not all kids would receive the Acadian and French Language Services, so it's a hard balance to try to figure out, and I thank you for that number.
If you did have some kind of comparative within the department that gives us an idea of where we sit in the country - I know a lot of times we hear that we're second to last and I don't believe it either because I look at the results that we've been getting over the last number of years in math and literacy and those kinds of things, and we've been seeing an improvement, so you can't make me believe that we're last nor second last. I think, in true Nova Scotian spirit, that we must be somewhere near the middle, which seems to be where Nova Scotia seems to rest most of the time.
So $10,300 per student, we have a declining enrolment, we've asked the schools boards to start to cut out of their budgets - two per cent seems to be sort of that average, and change. I know we had a discussion on Friday in around the Hogg formula - and there's a formula that I've never really been able to grasp, and I think even if we got Bill Hogg to come and try to explain it to us even Bill would probably have trouble in trying to explain it again of how everything is brought in. I want to understand, when we talk about we have this declining enrolment, which we all have seen, but declining enrolment was supposed to have been taken in by the Hogg formula, so why did you make a decision that we had to have the Hogg formula and we had to throw more cuts in - we had to throw another number of declining enrolment to come up with a better number, because in my mind the Hogg formula always makes those adjustments for declining enrolment, if you get the gist of my question.
MS. JENNEX: I have to say that when I was teaching I remember I went to a conference that was put on by - actually I don't know who it was put on by, but the NSTU was there and School Boards Association. I guess it was a stakeholders' meeting. A person got up and spoke on the Hogg formula and they actually spent the evening explaining out the Hogg formula and then people were giving all sorts of thoughts on how it might work a bit better within the province. When you said it's hard to get your head around it, there was a room full of professionals and that's what they spent the whole evening on, the Hogg formula. It was kind of interesting, I was over at Treasury Board very early on in my step into being the MLA and Dr. Hogg arrived. It was funny, to my mind, to actually recognize that the person who designed this formula actually could still redesign the formula. So it would be kind of funny because if we actually redesign the Hogg formula, we asked Dr. Hogg to do that, we could have Hogg II - you know, it's the movie.
Your question around the Hogg formula and taking into consideration the declining enrolment - there are actually two pieces to that. There are buffers to enrolment decline - there's enrolment supplement, small class size, small-school funding, and then there's the space utilization buffer. So this was all taken into consideration at the time. Now, we didn't make any adjustments to the Hogg formula, but there were a lot of other considerations that had been taken into place.
We have declining enrolment in our rural areas, as we know - people are moving into that more urban setting. So as the honourable member opposite mentioned last week, made a comment that that's all taken into consideration with the Hogg formula, but I don't think that when the Hogg formula was designed, when Dr. Hogg did that, we would ever have known that our declining enrolment is actually at the levels that it is and so many areas in the province are affected by a declining enrolment. I think at the time it was maybe one school board and, as you heard last week, I think it's almost every school board, with the exception of CSAP and HRM that are not affected by declining enrolment.
So that's quite an eye-opener here in the province about what's happening with our families and where they're choosing to live. So we need to make sure that our rural communities and our schools have the delivery of service that they need, and we're making sure that we're doing everything possible so that there's equity of service across the province.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Madam Chairman, there may be some sort of second piece or a third piece to that. Many times, probably over the last three to four years that I've been involved, you know, talking to the Tri-County Regional School Board, for example, there has always been this discussion of inequity amongst the school boards and they always go back to blaming the Hogg formula, but I know, too, that it's the Hogg formula, plus certain things that were either red-circled, or things that were phased over time in order to get to where you needed to be.
The example - and maybe you can clarify it for me a little bit, and this is basically the Tri-County Regional School Board because it's the one I know the best, they continually use the example, I think, of Chignecto - Chignecto, I think, is the one that they compare themselves to the most, okay, so you have relatively the same size in area, the same number of schools, pretty much the same number of students, and you have Chignecto that is funded much higher than the Tri-County. I forget the number of higher, but it's like they always look at, it's like a $5 million difference in that. So I'm just wondering, maybe you might not have the example right off, but some thoughts about why you would see that kind of difference for folks in Yarmouth versus folks in the Chignecto area?
MS. JENNEX: You were saying Tri-County and Chignecto - actually I think what you're probably referring to, that most people refer to, to the Strait, the Strait Regional.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Yes.
MS. JENNEX: You're saying in your understanding that they have . . .
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Pretty much everything the same, but funding.
MS. JENNEX: But the funding. And I'm just looking at my notes here. So the Strait and Tri-County received absolutely the same reductions and so I guess, I'm just looking at total funding and there is a difference in the dollar amount, but they were reduced the exact same amount. So you're talking about what has happened in the past because, of course, that gap wouldn't have changed any with the targets that they're mandated for now.
You've asked a question around that and that is an accounting question that I would need to have a better understanding from the department. What I'm going to do, though, is I will ask Mr. Dunn to do a briefing note for you to understand exactly how there would be a differentiation with the funding on that. There would be a very good reason as to why there would be a difference of $5 million, but I think that with that taken into consideration, I think all boards right now are looking among each other to see who's getting what. I will say the work that was done around this budget looked very clearly at making sure it was equitable and that no one board would have more hardship than another in relationship to making their reductions.
We know this is an exercise, that this is a targeted budget that is causing our school boards to do a lot of extra work around creating those efficiencies, and they're doing a very good job. We're asking, as you've heard, with the 15 per cent and the 50, we're looking for our boards to look at attrition and retirement to make those reductions with the people - and I know school boards are working very hard around that.
This is the time, as you know, with the collective agreement, that timelines need to be followed - and that was another piece I just wanted to bring up when you said about the targeted number. Never before has a department ever come out and told the school boards this is what your target's going to be two months in advance of a budget. Recognizing that we were asking the school boards to look at all of the issues around the reduced funding and the timelines that they have around their collective agreement, we definitely gave them enough time to do all the planning that was based on that.
I'm sorry I can't answer your question around one school board and another and the difference of the dollar amount, but Mr. Dunn will have that provided for you in a couple of days.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Before I recognize the member, I would just like to remind you that if there is a clarification required and there's an expectation it will be captured on Hansard, beware that you would need to be recognized. I just want to remind you of that. Thank you.
The honourable member for Argyle.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: I appreciate that because I didn't expect the answer right off, but clarification can be tabled and then we all can have a quick look at it.
Here's my quick understanding of this, and this is maybe where Frank can have a look at where he needs to be - when the Hogg formula was first brought in, when we started to divvy up the dollars in this manner, there were a number of school boards that would have taken large hits, and they would have brought them down. The government of the day made a decision and said nobody would take any big hits, but they would basically stay static until everybody else caught up and then everyone would be equal.
I think what has happened over time is that the red-circling sort of got forgotten and everybody seemed to move along with their increases. I don't know if that creates the issue there, but that's kind of where my understanding and my history with this issue has been. I was talking to Ron Hines the other day, they did have a presentation to their community, and he still talks about the inequity they have when compared to Strait. So any information I could have in and around that would be good.
I'm probably going to share my time with the member for Hants West in a few moments, but I just have a couple of school-specific questions and then I'll pass it off.
My area has two anglophone schools and it has four francophone schools. One of the francophone schools in the CSAP is Wedgeport, and that is due for a renovation. I'm wondering what the status of that is - I think probably the design stage is where it's sitting right now, but I'm wondering where that is.
Because I have Plymouth School, which is just up the road a little bit, it's an anglophone school in the Tri-County, there's a discussion of Arcadia School, which is just the next one over - they're within five kilometres of each other - I'm wondering if there's any thought of what's going to be happening with Arcadia School, which is just the next one over, so they are within five kilometres of each other, and I'm just wondering if there's any thought of what is going to be happening with Arcadia School, I think it's on the list now - what are the thoughts of the efficiency of those two schools?
MS. JENNEX: You asked multiple questions in there, didn't you? But that's okay, Madam Chairman, I think I can hold that. What I'm going to do, though, is that we do actually have the information for the member opposite on the differentiation with the funding for the Strait and Tri-County right here. The Strait School Board receives $2 million more for the enrolment supplement, so there will be a differentiation in numbers, and also $2 million for transportation, so that would make sense on the difference there. I guess that even though they might have some similarities, obviously enrolment and transportation has a higher cost.
Now l'École Wedgeport, you asked around the alterations. I'm seeing that of course, as you know, they are approved, and the completion of those, 2015, and construction is underway. So this is general building upgrades and also the tech system, which will be upgraded. So in 2015 that would be the completion, but it is underway according to my notes.
The next one you asked was you have two schools very close together, but I guess you know my answer, that anything to do with schools and reviews all sits with the school boards. But if you have two different school boards, I guess that's a very interesting situation, so I guess those two school boards, that may be something they could discuss with each other - I see that you are going to make a clarification on the question? Okay.
MR. D'ENTREMONT: Okay, let me clarify just a little bit - they are both in the same school board, they are both anglophone schools. Tri-county covers Shelburne, Yarmouth, and Digby. Basically what we've got is that the school board is putting, I believe, Arcadia School on the school closure list, okay, so to have their discussions on school closure. Five clicks away, in Plymouth, is another elementary school and then maybe five kilometres - I'm just looking at the member for Yarmouth - to downtown, I don't know, somewhere like that, so it is sort of in the middle of these two schools. It's more of probably a heads-up that there's this issue of this Arcadia School which is going to end up on the chopping block, really. There's going to be a tremendous discussion around it. It does need work if it was ever to be saved, it does need a gym, but there are a number of schools nearby.
Let me tell you how it all happened - there was a time where this was the Clare-Argyle School Board system in Yarmouth and the councils of the time made a decision that they wanted a new English school in the community of Plymouth, which is five kilometres away from the Wedgeport school, which was five kilometres away from the Arcadia School, so the kids in Plymouth at that time could go to their own school. Here we are, 20 years later, they all belong to the same school board, they're all being taken care of by the same people, there are probably teachers who travel back and forth between them, so there's going to be a bit of a discussion around Arcadia School and Plymouth School and which one is going to win, which one is going to lose. It's more of a heads-up issue, as the department will be dealing with that within a couple of years.
And with that, that pretty much finishes my questioning for this evening on this one and I'm going to share my time with the member for Hants West.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Hants West.
MR. CHUCK PORTER: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I'm pleased to have a few minutes this evening. Can you tell me how much time I do have left in this hour?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Approximately 19 minutes.
MR. PORTER: Oh, 19 minutes, well we've got a few minutes to start off anyway, and maybe I'll get a chance to come back.
Again, as I was saying, I'm pleased to have an opportunity to ask a few questions this evening of the minister. I'll try not to bounce around too much, but I've got a few things I do want to talk about, one of them being previous commitments that were made - the former government, with regard to a few schools that I have, and I'm sure this doesn't surprise you that I would ask at all, but I'm wanting, looking for the commitment that things are still in place here. Hantsport School was one that was announced for some spending, $2 million or so, for some renovations, much-needed renovations.
I know, Madam Minister, you are familiar with that school and the condition it is in and the work that it does need; I'm sure that you are more than aware. Maybe we'll start with that one in particular, and I'm just wondering the status of that - the year that we're now projecting, and if we're on target for what was previously announced?
MS. JENNEX: The completion date for Hantsport School will be 2013 and it is the tech systems and a whole building envelope of upgrades that are needed at that school. That one has not started, but that is on for completion for 2013.
If it's okay, I'm just going to respond to a comment made by your colleague, a member opposite, around the school situation that he mentioned in his area. When he made a comment around winners and losers, I just want to be very clear that a review process that the school board does, when a school is put on a review list, I think that the community needs to look at it - "on a review list" does not necessarily mean you're going to close. A review list can mean a number of different things for the community. Just as the member opposite knows, that the community has the opportunity at that time, so not only does the school board have their feelings on the schools, the community of course has a huge interest. Because of the school review process and the timelines, the community definitely will be able to come forward and so solutions are probably being held in the hands of people within the community that will come up with something that's quite workable
MR. PORTER: Madam Chairman, so 2013 the work is scheduled to be complete in Hantsport. So would that mean then, this is early on in 2011, but the time is going by fast, and I would think there would be a tendering process - that's going to take a little time to get posted, of course, and hire the appropriate contractors and such to come in and then the work beginning. when would you see this being underway? Certainly the work is going to take a bit of time, it's not something that's going to be done in a month or so, I wouldn't think. Can you break that time frame down for me?
MS. JENNEX: I can't break the time frame down for you, unfortunately, but I can tell you that the money is in this year's budget, so that leads me to believe that this year things will be happening, because if the money is in this budget year that definitely means that the work will be started this year. I can't give you the specifics of the time frame for that at this time.
MR. PORTER: I am assuming then that as the process goes, the board would be advised and they would begin the appropriate procedures for tendering and hiring and so on and so forth, so that's very good to hear and I'm sure that the good folks in Hantsport - because it does cover quite a wide area of not only Hants but some of Kings County, I believe, and all the kids. And there are quite a few kids down there - I know there has been considerable talk about the reduction in the number of students, but I think you'll find as I carry on in my comments this evening and onward that you'll find that not all areas are the same. There are some growth areas in my constituency.
On to Three Mile Plains - that was another one that was announced at the same time, and I'm wondering about time frame there. There are a lot of issues with the Three Mile Plains School, by way of size mostly. It was built smaller, it was like a few others; the gym is inadequate, based on the size of it, and we need to make sure that that project is not only on target but, given that we have nice surpluses announced, is there any chance that this project can begin sooner than was projected, given the need?
And I see the Minister of Finance chuckling over that but, in all seriousness, if the math is that good - or the mathematician, the minister perhaps is that good - and there are surpluses, we definitely need to be looking into some of these places to spend. Not that there are any shortages; I'm more than well aware of places for the money to go, especially schools - and I hear my other colleague hollering about roads and so on. I'm sure every member in here would have their list prepared if they thought the Minister of Finance would be generous enough to write a few cheques to have the work done, but I just can't see it. (Laughter)
Back on track here; I want to stay on track, on education. I'm wondering about the Three Mile Plains School, and mostly, are we on target with what was projected and announced previous and, more importantly, is there any opportunity to move that up given their need and what they're going through right now by way of having to take things like their Christmas concerts even elsewhere, because there's just not enough room? It seemed like it's a very large place when we were small - and I was - and going to these schools and now it's a very, very small place.
I understand some of them are being used for other things, not just gym, as classrooms and such. Three Mile Plains is one of those areas of growth; they have no problem meeting student population there and they're growing nicely. All the more reason to see that this school is maintained as it should be - and so just on that, maybe if you could clarify where we're heading.
MS. JENNEX: As you know, we receive our information from school boards if there's any pressing needs around capital development. This government made a commitment to honour the commitments of the past government and I just want you to know that we are honouring the same commitment that was brought forward. Three Mile Plains, their target for completion was the year 2016 - there is no funding in this year's budget for that, it's a project that is going to be in the out years.
It is a big project, the total cost that was asked for was $4.6 million. The honourable member opposite recognized here on the floor that they do need a gym, so there is going to be a gym addition. There is going to be a floor plan modification and of course the tech systems are going to be upgraded - that is so important nowadays because we're learning in different ways in our classrooms. These older buildings have needed upgrades to bring in the wiring for projectors and being able to bring in "Smart Boards" and things like that.
If there was anything that needed to be done differently on our timelines, that would be information that the school board would have made available, but at this time everything is on target - which is the year 2016 for Three Mile Plains.
Isn't it wonderful to actually hear about an area in our province that has a growing population - that is really good to hear and Three Mile Plains is a beautiful community. I was actually just there not too long ago in that area because I was driving down through that area to get to the new opening of Windsor Elms.
I have to say that the honourable member - I know he would have dearly loved to have been there, but his daughter was getting married so he wasn't able to attend that opening but he did bring beautiful remarks that were read in his absence. The facility decided to have their opening on the same day as the 45th Anniversary of their original opening and, unfortunately, the member opposite had family commitments. But I have to say that his words were brought forward at the opening, they were heartfelt and, even though he was not aware of it, he did have a wonderful round of applause and people appreciated that he was able to be there in spirit.
MR. PORTER: Yes I did very much miss - I would have loved to have been there that day. It was an exciting day, but I certainly understood the reason for the date and so on, albeit April 1st of all things, but there was no fooling around that day, it was all serious and all business. It is a wonderful place that we are very fortunate to have; we have a great group of people there, as you know, as you had the opportunity to meet and tour, I'm sure, that day.
Yes, Three Mile Plains is a wonderful area that is growing in student population and holding their own, which is wonderful. You mentioned the capital project, Madam Minister, so if a school or principal, the administration, sees there's a need for a school that needs work - and most of them all do, they're all aging - they would make their plea to the board. The board would decide then that this is something that we see of value and we would move it forward on the capital list and it would be presented obviously to yourself and your department for future decisions.
Windsor Forks - I'm not sure if you're familiar with that school or not - now you talk about a growth area. I forget when the last review was done in our board area - you may be able to tell me that - the principal says it's been a number of years ago, but it seems to me like it's not been that many, but she thought that it was 15 years ago, but I thought it was a lot sooner than that. Anyway, that school at one point in time was considered to be one of those that may have been in jeopardy of not being around for a future, and now we have one portable classroom outside that is more than used, it's also the library. The gymnasium, again one of the small gymnasiums is there, and it's being used for things other than gymnasium activities and recreation, and we have a request into the board for two to three more of these portable classrooms.
Now, this was a school that was similar to the model that was built in the area, like a lot of schools were in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and opening and so on, but it was smaller by, I think, the length of what would be two classrooms, we would say - I believe it's two classrooms shorter. So you can see how that need, at that time, probably was adequate for the area, but now we have well outgrown that and we need the room. This was never put on the capital project.
Now, the school, when we met with Shelley King a couple weeks back, myself and the honourable member for Cumberland South, we had a tour and got an update - and I've been there many times and have watched this happen, but I never noticed it on the capital project back a number of years ago when we were remodelling Hants West Middle School that's now complete, of course, and the two schools that have been mentioned by way of Hantsport, as well as Three Miles Plains, but here's a school that definitely has a need and it's definitely growing. Portable classrooms have a place, but at the same time, I mean if that's all there is, we'll take it because we need them and right now we're trying to guarantee with the board, in fact, that they're going to get the portable classrooms because we have to have them - there just isn't the room, it's a must.
But, more importantly, I would like you to have this considered. This is something that I think is fairly significant by way of an urgent need to be at least reviewed on the capital list. I don't know if the board has brought that to your attention, Madam Minister, or not, but I'm bringing it today on behalf of the principal and the parent support group and so on at that school, whom I have worked with, as I said, and you know this is a priority.
They thought, in talking to them, that we just really didn't pay any attention to it. I never ever saw it on a list and didn't realize the seriousness of the need, but I am bringing it forward on their behalf and I would certainly like to have some consideration given to that. I have no idea what the board has put forward at this point in time for capital projects out into the future, but in listening to what you're saying, and also understanding, we're already talking about 2013 and 2016 by way of schools in my area with projects, construction and renovations. And I know that they're all over the province - it's not just Hants West, I do realize that.
So I'm wondering, what's the process here and what's the priority? How are we really basing it - is it strictly based on the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board having that priority, or is it based on broader provincial boards in general, as to how a decision like Windsor Forks, that is growing and I know there's all this debate about student population shrinking, but again I want to stress how this is growing and we would be more than happy as well to have you out there just to really see, for yourself, how things are operating.
We're fortunate to have great administration, as we are in most boards, I think, but certainly I always take the opportunity to brag about the board in my immediate school district of Hants West. Administration has done a very fine job, they're managing through the tougher times in some schools and through the tougher times even where there's growth. So I'm really interested in the priority here as to how we might be able to see this thing through.
MS. JENNEX: What I'm going to do is clarify this school capital construction and the process around that. It began in 1992, so it has been in place quite awhile.
This is the procedure: The Department of Education requests that school boards submit their capital project requests; the school board submits the list of desired projects to the Department of Education; then the committee, that's the School Capital Construction Committee, the SCCC - another acronym - reviews the list with the school boards and that committee then does tour the affected schools; the SCCC prepares a provincial priority list of projects based on four criteria, condition, capacity, programs and, of course, efficiency; the deputy minister and the committee chairman meet with the elected school board members to review the preliminary list of projects to be submitted to government for consideration; the project list is updated based on meetings with the school boards; the fiscal plans are established based on the updated provincial priority list; and then the final project list and fiscal plan is submitted to government for consideration.
I just want to say that the school that you are discussing is not on any of our lists, but that is how the process works. I guess that gives enough information that you would need to realize that you will need to be speaking to the board about this. Thank you very much for that question.
MR. PORTER: I guess in saying all of that there is a process; that's great. There would be potential then, if it was deemed to be higher on the priority list, things could obviously change by way of the capital list then, by way of time frames. So there is an opportunity there even though they're feeling like they've been forgotten and, in fact, missed in the urgency of what work does need to be done out there and that they are such a growth area. That's fine; that's great. We'll make sure that some work is done as to how to get underway with that. The board - I know, as you do, that we meet regularly with our board, given that we share the same and that we have a very ambitious group there who are on the ball by way of wanting the best for their school district.
I wonder, a little bit, not only so much on budgets, but on the consistency and the application of school boards. I've not been the biggest fan of any board - probably in this Chamber I've stood and I've talked more about the health boards and the districts and how there are so many inconsistencies by way of efficiencies; at least it appears that way. We have nine district health authorities for a small province; you have to wonder how we function sometimes. I'm not saying that any of the boards don't function well; I'm just saying how much inconsistency is there by way of boards and how they do do business.
I know that we seem to, I'll use the word "download" - and I know I'm running out of time - onto the board to make decisions based on a number of things, pretty much everything, and then come back to you as minister and the department for what their needs are. How much inconsistency is there in how one board operates from the other? I know that the sizes are different; I know the student populations are different - and I appreciate all that, but shouldn't there be some consistency or is there a base consistency by way of a model that all boards must follow?
MS. JENNEX: There are eight school boards in the province, one is the CSAP. All school boards are given a mandate to provide the programming for the province. Every board is mandated - the exact same mandate is given to them. In the Education Act their duties are outlined, so all school boards have exactly the same mandate and all school boards have the same duties.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The time allotted for the Progressive Conservative Party has expired. We'll now revert to the Official Opposition.
The honourable member for Bedford-Birch Cove.
MS. KELLY REGAN: Thank you, Madam Chairman, I will be sharing my time with the member for Kings West. Thank you, Madam Minister, for coming to the House today to submit to questions.
Last week you indicated that the new Bedford High School would be built with "more capacity than even necessary" - and I have the Hansard here for that. Could you please identify what parts of the building the province is constructing with more capacity than even necessary?
MS. JENNEX: I guess when one chooses one's words, that sometimes you'd like to go back and reframe that - actually, the building has been built with the capacity to be able to meet the needs of a growing population. I've had a meeting with Darrell MacDonald on the school and the school has the ability to meet the needs of 1,600 students, with one actual teaching space still available. The school is a beautifully designed building that not only has classrooms and teaching spaces, it has other meeting places within the building.
I guess to start off to answer the question, the school has been designed to meet the needs of the growing community. Looking at the forecast in terms of enrolment figures in the out years, the school is built to meet the needs of a growing area and can meet the needs of 1,600 students, still with one extra teaching space available.
MS. REGAN: With the greatest respect, I think that is if people all take certain courses but, for example, at CP Allen science courses are extremely popular, which means that labs are necessary. What happened last summer was that two labs were cut from that design and we don't why. Right now CP Allen is 400 students over the capacity it was built for - so it is the same situation that we're talking about here. There are students who cannot take science in a lab and cannot do the weather experiments that are called for in their curriculum because they are not in a lab. So my question is how can this be, that if at CPA you can't do it with 400 students, how can you magically be able to do in the new Bedford High School with an excess 400 students?
MS. JENNEX: We are discussing the Bedford-Hammonds Plains School - the design of that school has five labs. I did spend time with Mr. McDonald going over the labs and it's based on our provincial programs, based on the highest number of students that could possibility ever be in that school. There is the ability for every student's needs to be met inside a lab in this school, Bedford-Hammonds Plains, when it's built.
Now there has been a lot of speculation, for some reason, that there would not be capacity. We have met with the - not me, personally, but the staff has met with the principal and we based that on provincial programming. There are five labs, which if you look at the students and the programs that are being taught and how children will utilize that space - because when you're looking at a lab and you're looking at the number of children, you have to understand that children move in and out labs - there are X number of periods a day that the lab would be used. There is capacity for all the students' needs to be met within science, and to be taught inside a lab.
I'm noticing that the member opposite is looking at me with a great deal of distrust on this particular issue. I have been very clear with making sure that this school is going to be built. This school is going to be one of the state-of-the-art schools being built in the Province of Nova Scotia and many considerations have been taken with this school. This school is going to be a beautiful learning environment for the students of Bedford-Hammonds Plains.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, some people feel that it will not be built to capacity for the labs. There is going to be enough lab time and lab space for every student taking our programs, to make sure they get the appropriate time in the lab with their teachers so that they will be able to excel in science. I don't understand why there would be a great deal of concern about this, because based on all of the information that has been provided to the community, and we have had conversation with the administration of the school, that the students are going to be well served by this beautiful new school out in Bedford-Hammonds Plains.
MS. REGAN: I have no doubt that this is going to be a beautiful school; I've seen the designs. I have no doubt that a lot of time has been put into this, but in fact they are meeting tomorrow to work this out further, so I don't see how you can say that at this point it has all been worked out - number one - and, number two, labs need set-up time. You can't just walk into a classroom and have that class happen there. You have to set up, you have to get your Bunsen burners out, or whatever the heck they are using these days - I might be dating myself, I don't know - but it takes time, you can't just schedule labs back-to-back, there has to be some down time in there.
I'm concerned that we are talking about a school that is built for 1,200 students and now we're suddenly talking about jamming 1,600 people in there. If it was built for 1,200 students, then why are we putting 1,600 in there? I had heard, quite frankly, that it was entirely possible to put 1,400 students in a school that was built for 1,200 - and I totally accept that. I think at some point you go over the line and I want to know, at what point is a school too full? Do we try to ram in 1,800 too?
Quite frankly, all I keep hearing is that we can fit these children in; it'll be fine. Well then why are we building it for 1,200 - why not just build it for 1,000? There must be some kind of a formula that says students get X amount of square footage. Why is that so elastic that you can ram in another 400 students, another one-third of what it's supposedly built for? It doesn't make sense to me - and, I'll tell you, it doesn't make sense to the parents.
I understand that there is supposed to be another high school being built down the road and maybe they want it so overcrowded that they can come to you and say we need another high school - and maybe that's the theory behind it. In the meantime, there are students there who are supposed to be going off to community college, to university, and I don't understand how we can justify ramming kids in there for whatever period of time, until the school board actually gets around to asking for another school.
I'm just wondering, at one point does overcrowding become an issue for the department - is the tipping point 1,610? What is the tipping point on a school for 1,200?
MS. JENNEX: I guess I didn't explain myself clearly when I made the comment about 1,600. There are not 1,600 students available to go into the school when it's opened up. That is a projected number in maybe an out-year. What I was trying to explain - and I guess I didn't do a very good job, and I apologize - every school in the province, when it's built, is designed to have increased capacity because, hopefully, when we build our schools in growth areas, we expect that we're going to have growth. One of the interesting things about new schools, which is evident, is you build a new school, they will come. So even though the projected enrolment from the school board, who gave us their numbers, and then we had another updated enrolment for 1,326 for the year 2013 - that information was given to the School Advisory Council on April 5th - that's what the school is being built for, but it has the flexibility to be able to accommodate 1,600 students without it being crowded.
We would never build a school and ever consider ramming a student in. This is going to be a building that children will be coming to, when it opens up, where they are going to be comfortable, welcomed and accommodated in all areas of the school. This is a school that has been built with a design so the students not only learn in classrooms but in learning spaces. It has been built around the learning of a child in the province. Most schools have been built in the past with a classroom and a teacher in front and that's sort of how they thought. This school has been designed to look at how children learn in the 21st Century, so it has more meeting places and places that children can meet in break-out groups.
Never would a school ever be designed by the Department of Education where we would ever consider ramming a student in. We are making sure children, when they arrive at that school, our young students arrive, they're going to be welcomed and they're going to be able to have their programs delivered to them in a respectful and engaged manner. The projected enrolments, if they do go forward and we have it as growth, that school can accommodate very comfortably, without having any difficulty meeting any of their needs, especially around the labs, to 1,600.
It has been built in a different way and I think that maybe has caused some confusion. This is a different design of a school built on what people are learning about children and their learning and how they best learn within a building. That is why it has been built to accommodate up to 1,600, but those children don't exist at this time in that area but they can be because, of course, where every community in the Province of Nova Scotia wants people to move and raise their families in certain areas, so Bedford-Hammonds Plains is no different, and we're hoping, of course, when the new school is built and the doors open that young families will think of moving to Bedford-Hammonds Plains to raise their family and then attend that school.
MS. REGAN: So I take it, from what you've said, you are guaranteeing that students will not lose lab time because of overcrowding?
MS. JENNEX: The question is, you are asking, can I guarantee? I am going to stand here and guarantee that every student who goes to Bedford-Hammonds Plains High School will have lab time in a lab.
MS. REGAN: Thank you, Madam Minister - and that only took three tries to get it out, so there we go.
All right, when you do build a second high school, how overcrowded does it have to be - what I'm wondering is at what point do you look at a second high school? The new HRSB plan is out, which I have part of here, the part dealing with the Charles P. Allen Family of Schools and the new, suggested Ravines Family of Schools, and the suggestion is that Charles P. Allen, the replacement school, will become too crowded and that we're going to have to have another one built. The suggestion from HRSB is that this would be in the Ravines area, which is between Bedford and Halifax basically, so along the Bedford Highway, and I'm just wondering at what point you say that a school is too overcrowded and you have to have another high school built.
MS. JENNEX: As the honourable member knows, the Department of Education doesn't decide where schools are built. It is up to the board to recognize their needs and then the board will advise the Department of Education what the needs are in their boards for capital construction and also, as you heard me mention with the member opposite, around renovations, alterations and what is needed.
That is something that the board would come forward to the Department of Education with their needs. At this time when you are mentioning a second school, there has been no mention of any second school that has come to government in that area that you are mentioning. I have to say that this Bedford-Hammonds Plains school, construction hasn't started at this time and for people to think that it would be overcrowded before it even opens is not something that is going to be happening.
I know that the construction is happening in terms of levelling the site right now because the site, after it was chosen, it was recognized that it needed to have a lot of ground - it was actually rock that needs to be removed from the site, so this school is being built. They haven't started construction, but they have been preparing the site for construction. This is a school that will be able to meet the needs of the community when it opens - that's what it was designed for.
The school board has a process in place and they do very good work at making sure that their numbers and their projections are as accurate as they possibly can be. So, hopefully, when this new school opens up, people are going to recognize the value of having a school that has been built with a student and their learning in mind and there will probably be more people moving to Bedford-Hammonds Plains - and that was taken into consideration with the design of the school.
I know the member opposite knows and is probably excited about the enhancements HRM is bringing to that school, too - this is a school that is going to be an absolutely beautiful school for the area. The cafeteria, with the cafetorium, will have a catwalk, and HRM is making sure that it will have enhanced acoustics. Because some schools in the past have been built, and other spaces in the province - and you have a beautiful space and a lot of people can attend that space, but the acoustics are dead or tinny, so the enhanced acoustics are going to be a real bonus to that school.
HRM is going to make sure the school gym is going to be built from - as the department has certain formulas - 8,400 square feet, they're enhancing it to 10,500 feet. They are also going to have a community gym, the community centre - and this is the really exciting part - it's going to have a larger field with artificial turf. Right at the onset, all of these enhancements are going to be taking place - it's going to be an absolutely wonderful place for our students in Bedford-Hammonds Plains.
MS. REGAN: I was at the community meeting where the area rate to pay for those things was approved, so I was aware of those. In the new HRSB plan the Ravines high school that would come on stream is an English high school only. This school would take in students from Madeline Symonds Middle School and Clayton Park Junior High, but only those in an English stream.
I realize this is an HRSB project at this point; it hasn't come to you yet. I'm just wondering, could you comment on having high schools that are English only, because I'm not aware of this being part of department policy - is this in the direction that the province is going? I'm just wondering if you could comment on that please.
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, I have to apologize to the member opposite. If you just wouldn't mind rephrasing the question because what I'm hearing you say is, is it department policy to just build an English-only high school, but I missed the very first part of the lead into that question, so I apologize.
MS. REGAN: At this point the new HRSB facility master plan has a new Ravines high school that would have students from Madeline Symonds Middle School, which is in Hammonds Plains, and Clayton Park Junior High which normally feeds into Halifax West - Madeline Symonds currently feeds into Charles P. Allen. It would only be taking students from the English stream for this high school. The students who are in French immersion would continue to go to Bedford High School or Charles P. Allen, or whatever you want you call it. I'm just wondering, is this departmental policy - are we moving in this direction? Are you aware of this change, because I have to say I read their facility report and kind of went - what? - because it seems like a change to me.
MS. JENNEX: I guess I'm going to have to answer by saying that I haven't seen the documents or the report of what you're speaking about. The delivery of French immersion is a board decision; it doesn't fall under a departmental mandate. This is a report that I'm just hearing about this evening and it hasn't come to the department. This must be part of maybe their visioning, but it's not something that has come to government, it has not come to the Department of Education. Anything to do with their programming, French immersion decisions, sit with our school boards.
MS. REGAN: I have another overcrowding question - Surprise. Bedford is growing
Over the past year I've actually had a lot of phone calls from the parents from Bedford South School. These parents have contacted me because their children are - the way they phrased it - "being crammed in there" and enrolment keeps climbing. I'm just wondering if you've received a capital request from the Halifax Regional School Board for another elementary school to be built in the C.P. Allen catchment area. If you want to explain the procedure for - I was writing something out and I only caught two of the four key elements - condition and capacity - so maybe you could just outline those for us so we know.
MS. JENNEX: No, I have not received any information around any other capital projects, but in repeating how school capital construction works, we have the committee - the CSSS - and they prepare the priority list of projects based on criteria: condition, capacity, programs, and efficiency. That's the list of projects based on those four criteria - so condition, capacity, programs, and efficiency.
MS. REGAN: Bedford South School was built for 540 students and I know that it's easier for a high school to be more adaptable in terms of capacity because you don't have all the students there for every class with a high school, but this is a P-9 school at this time. It was built for 540 students; it now holds 683 students, and more students are added every single month. Now last year the school board instituted an enrolment cap and then they removed it a month later and I'm just wondering, is having 683 students in a school built for 540 Department of Education policy?
MS. JENNEX: There is no policy stating numbers for schools. We recognize that the school boards have issues around overcapacity in some and that's their job as the boards. They make their priorities known to the Department of Education and then we work through the committee and through the deputy and explore what is needed.
Grade 9 - I think it's the Grade 9 classes, or the Grade 6 classes - I know that there has been some reconfiguration in schools around the province on moving Grade 6 classes into other schools. I guess that when you and I went to school - not that we'd want to date each other - Grade 6 students in a Primary to Grade 6 school were children that, you know, you finally got to Grade 6. Now, our Grade 6 children, with our society, they're really ready for the middle school or a high school . . .
AN HON. MEMBER: That's P-9.
MS. JENNEX: Well then it might be the Grade 9 classes. And we're also recognizing - and thank you for clarification - I know that in my own area a number of our schools are moving the Grade 9 classess from the P-9 schools into the high school, recognizing that our students today have much more knowledge and experiences, because the world is at our fingertips right now with the Internet and programming that we watch.
We know more, and our children have had the benefit of the world at their fingertips. X number of years ago - and I'm not going to date the member opposite or myself - we didn't have the same experiences. We got our information from the encyclopedia and from our classroom teachers and programming on channels were - like we had three channels and now students not only have the world at their fingertips, they have many more experiences and many more opportunities available to them. Recognizing that, the learning needs of our children at Grade 6 moving up into middle school, and Grade 9 classes being more ready for the high school, that probably will take into consideration the P-9 school and the moving of students to another school.
I do know that's happening around the province. I can't be specific to say exact numbers, but we don't have any policy on numbers. Those numbers come to us from the school board and then we'll work with the school board.
MS. REGAN: So if I understand correctly, the process for new capital projects is that you ask the boards for their top projects and then things are determined from there - is that correct?
MS. JENNEX: Yes.
MS. REGAN: So at this time you have not called for new capital projects for schools - is that correct?
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, yes, the answer to your question is we haven't made that call at this time.
MS. REGAN: Does the minister have any idea when she might be making that call?
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, we will be looking at that and I thank the honourable member for bringing this to my attention. I haven't had that discussion with the department at this time. I know that a review process usually takes place over a number of - every so many years. We did have an awful lot of capital projects on our list because we approved all of the capital projects from the prior administration. So we're going through that at this time. But you're absolutely right, it does come from the call, from the department, and at this time I haven't had that discussion with the department. So as soon as we make that determination, then we'll put the call out.
MS. REGAN: And that concludes my questions, and I would like to now pass my time over to the member for Kings West.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, Madam Minister, and staff, for being available.
Not being the critic, I guess perhaps I don't have as specific questions as I would have at one time. One of the areas - any time, I know, I have a meeting with the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, and Tri-County has been pretty close as well, sometimes even since giving up the critic role I get an e-mail or a call and one of the areas that keeps coming up is the Hogg formula.
I know it was mentioned here by a colleague tonight, and I may be making my own conclusion without insight on this, but I would be very surprised if the minister didn't share the opinion that former superintendent Jim Gunn is truly one of the very enlightened educators that we've been fortunate to have in this province and to work with. Dr. Gunn not only made an outstanding treatise and presentation on how the Hogg formula disadvantaged AVRSB right from the get-go, we also heard from a couple of other boards, one other board at the time, two in particular, right from the very year the draft came out in 2004, implemented the next year, and since then a couple of other boards, because we know that some boards with declining enrolment did not reach that threshold of 2 per cent loss of students - like lots of years it was 1.7, 1.85, but yet they didn't get that same level of funding as schools that were over the 2 per cent threshold.
So with really some acknowledged deficiencies in a wider circle now - and I know the minister is new in the Department of Education, new in her role - I'm wondering if the minister has taken a look at all, even a cursory look at the Hogg formula, and would she be prepared to perhaps look at a review as time goes along in her ministry.
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for that question. I have to say that the Hogg formula - and I don't know if you heard my remarks earlier - but I was in a room with many people and having the whole evening going over the Hogg formula, and if we did review it, and if it was Dr. Hogg again, then we could call it the Hogg 2. But I'm thinking if we do have another formula we will probably think very carefully about who we ask, because if we did ask Dr. Gunn to do then it would be the Gunn formula - I have to be very careful on not asking him on the floor.
I do want to say that, yes, the Hogg formula has created some efficiencies probably, you know, those unintended things that happen with formulas. The member opposite will be very pleased to know that, yes, the formula is being reviewed this year.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, with that comment I don't have to move any further down that path of a few specifics.
As soon as boards were faced with trimming their budgets and making cuts this year, one of the programs that was very strongly initiated and supported, and I think it will work - a former board chair Terrie Spinney - around the whole area of getting students to have a more practical, a more hands-on way of supplementing the loss of vocational programs and so on right across our province, and I certainly have heard glowing reports about the O2 program and I'm wondering if the cuts this year will mean no further approvals of that course, or advancing it further throughout the Grades 10 to 12 programming - I'm just wondering, what are this year's plans and the future plans for that course?
MS. JENNEX: I guess it goes without saying Terrie Spinney was a friend of mine and a friend of the member opposite. Terrie Spinney was a good person and good school board member. I'll tell you, if you had anything you needed done in your community, Terrie was there, so thank you for bringing up his advocacy on behalf of students in the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board.
I'm hearing nothing but glowing reports about what that Options and Opportunities program does for students. In this budget process that was absolutely - the targeted funding for the program remained in place for our school boards. There is nothing better than when we can meet the needs of our students to keep them engaged in schools. Now mind you of course, Options and Opportunities not necessary means the student is actually in school to be engaged - but they are engaged and they are engaged in schooling. And who says that education has to take place within those walls of a building?
So Options and Opportunities is one of those programs that meet the needs of our students who have been disenfranchised at some point in their development. It captures them in a program that engages them, they are successful in, and they move on with the ability to take courses at NSCC if they so desire.
Terrie Spinney was a very wise man and he was a great advocate for many, many people within our community and within the school system. I know he would be very pleased to know, where he's listening from now, that Options and Opportunities is going to be continued in this budget year for those students - the things that work that we have in our education systems are things that are going to stay.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you very much, Madam Minster, for that answer and that certitude about a wonderful program.
I almost overlooked the question I had here from my colleague, the member from Clare. He wasn't available this evening for the questions. The CSAP has seen two resignations as of late, one in Richmond and one in Dartmouth - will the minister be calling by-elections for these ridings, so there is again proper representation?
MS. JENNEX: Thank you for that question. There have been two resignations - I didn't realize they were resignations - I knew there were two vacancies and there's another school board that has a vacancy, too, on their board. If a vacancy occurs between two years and six months - I'm going to get this right - if it happens six months away from an election, then nothing will happen, that would stay vacant. But if it's within a two-year time frame from the election and up to six months, then the minister has the ability to call for people to apply.
It's a procedure that has been put in place now that is very similar to our agencies and boards, so that the person would be able to apply for the vacancy. Those applications come to the Department of Education and a committee then vets them, with a suggestion from the staff who view them, then the minister has the ability to name the person who will fill a vacancy and that takes away the need for a by-election. So the school boards have been notified of the procedure around that, it's the same as an ABC application, and it goes through committee and then it would be a minister's decision on who will fill the vacancy.
MR. GLAVINE: Just so that I keep the same theme for one further question here and that, of course, will be on the record for the member for Clare.
One other question around school boards - 2012 is the next year that school boards come up for election, I do believe, I think it's, yes, the same as municipal elections in 2012. I'm wondering if the minister is in concert with the current number of school board members that make up each of the boards across the province - we've been getting a lot of rationalization around the declining enrolment concept, so I'm just wondering if school boards are right number, right geography, for the current education system.
MS. JENNEX: School boards and the makeup of the school boards are in the Education Act and so that would be something that would need a legislative change, and I can say that is not a discussion that we have had - but it is in the Act on school boards.
I'm feeling a little badly here, I didn't explain my last answer as well as I would want to. For some reason I wasn't able to get the explanation in timing. If it's okay, member opposite - if you have six months left in a school board, the seat remains vacant; if it's more than six months, but less than two years - that's what I was trying to say and I couldn't get it out - then it's a ministerial appointment, but if it's more than two years, then it is a special election that does take place.
How that came to be was there was a white paper, Increasing the Effectiveness of School Board Governance in Nova Scotia, which was released in 2008. So that is how that was formulated in response to what happens when there is a vacancy on a school board. I hope I clarified that and I apologize for not being able to get my words around something as simple as it was. Thank you very much.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you for that further explanation. One of the areas that has been - I guess one of those almost like a pet advocacy, as well as something brought here to the floor of the Legislature on a number of occasions, is tuition support. It's something that I believe in very strongly - I believe in the right of any child in Nova Scotia to have an opportunity to be in a program if the current school or school system across the province is unable to provide that level of special education. I know my colleague from Colchester North, when she was the Minister of Education, was also profoundly moved by children who needed tuition support and the number of years in which they could receive it was increased. I'm just wondering if you could provide a little bit of an overview of where we are with this.
I know when cuts were proposed, I had a couple of letters that were as passionate as any that I have ever received around the need for that tuition support, which especially if a child is going to those schools, our Valley private school, it is only a small portion of the cost of their tuition. So I'm just wondering if you could outline - if we have a child who entered Grade 6 or 7, would they be able to be covered, if the need was there, through their remaining years of education?
MS. JENNEX: I know a lot about the Tuition Support Program because I have the great honour of having Landmark East in Wolfville and, over the last couple of years, I have met with the staff and have met a few of the students who attend that school. The Tuition Support Program was worked on by the previous Minister of Education, and the previous Minister of Education did an absolutely fabulous job with all the recommendations that came forward to her.
One of the things with the Tuition Support Program in the past, people were always uncertain if it was going to be in the budget year, if it was going to be ongoing, and so parents were always not knowing. The previous Minister of Education took all the recommendations under advisement and made an announcement which created a framework and stability for people in the province who are on an IPP, that the school cannot meet the needs.
I have to say that the Landmark East School, Churchill Academy, and Bridgeway Academy have a unique way of teaching the children and they have specialized courses on meeting the needs of children. One of my own children is a recipient of Landmark East tutoring and, I have to tell you, when I watched the work that my daughter was doing with her tutor, it amazed me. The approach didn't make sense to me because it's something that, with all of my training and education, I had never seen. The tutor told me that within six weeks she would have my daughter reading at a certain level. Now, this is a child who was not able to read, decode, having a great deal of difficulty, and within six weeks was starting to read, so it's a very interesting program and approach.
One of them is the LIPP - and I don't know the words that go with that acronym. The previous minister has made an announcement and we are making sure that children who are on an LIPP and go through the appropriate procedure, need the service outside of their school, that they have the ability to be in Landmark, Churchill, or Bridgeway for three years and, if need be, a fourth year of transition - now, that's only if need be.
Some children might start in at one of the schools and the supports that they need might be able to give them the approaches and the support and the knowledge that they have - I'm not getting my words around this - but they might get the strategies quite quickly and be able to transition back in the school system; in other cases children need a little bit longer. Right now it is three years, with one year transition, and that would be the maximum. You have to recognize that some of our students might need longer, but I know the minister recognized that this is a much-needed service for children who have severe learning disabilities and other disorders that sometimes co-exist with children with learning disabilities.
On the other hand, sometimes a learning disability can stand on its own, but this will also serve the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. There is a criteria and a process before they would be able to receive tuition support - they would have to be on an IPP and have worked with the school board. We have people within our school boards who have expertise around autism and expertise around learning disabilities. A great deal of work will have gone in place before that's recognized that they would need to attend one of the schools which are doing fantastic work here in the province. Many children are really well served.
As I said, my own daughter received support from Landmark East and she was able to learn strategies that she still, many years later, utilizes that are so much a part of the way she knows that she needs to learn. She still uses those strategies of taking the extra time and also how she approaches her work, all coming from the good work at Landmark East.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, Madam Minister, we certainly are aware of the great work that Landmark East, Churchill, and Bridgeway do.
That being said, they are very geographically centered, as we know. There are parts of the province that, as much as school boards and central office and schools themselves want to be able to provide for special needs, we know that the degree of expertise and training is not available in many of our schools. That's what school boards tell us, that's what the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, in meetings that I've been at, all say - we cannot meet all those needs. I'm wondering, is the minister prepared over the next couple of years to make a commitment to meet more of the needs of students?
I know that, yes, there is more training to deal with autism. We have, seemingly, more and more students every year entering our system who now get diagnosed much earlier with a whole range of mild to severe learning disabilities. One of the areas that I believe distinguishes us in Nova Scotia from other education systems is that we have really failed in this day of greater individualization to meet the needs of that broad range of students. I'm wondering, is the minister really committed to changing some of that in our public school system?
MS. JENNEX: The Department of Education is always looking at ways to make sure that our students with special needs have the supports that they need. When we're talking about students with special needs, we have many, many different kinds of needs - we have children with medical issues who need to be recognized and worked with in the schools, so we partner with the Department of Health and Wellness as to the best way we can meet the needs of students with medical concerns.
We also have students in our school system who have special needs because of language difficulties, so we're working with agencies outside of the school system on best practices around children with English as an additional language, for example. There's partnering going on and providing the service. That's something the department is always looking at - how we can best meet the needs of our students.
As you know, you recognize, we have more and more children being identified as having learning disabilities, or ADHD, autism and that has certainly been an area where there has been a great deal of work done, not only in the Department of Education but also with the Department of Health and Wellness, looking at those concerns and those issues. That is something that the department is continually looking at, the best way we can meet the needs of our children and the work that teachers need, too, to meet the needs of their children in the classroom. So that's ongoing. You asked for my commitment - that is an ongoing commitment of the Department of Education and this minister.
I'm going to say that for any minister that would be an ongoing commitment as to how we can best meet the needs of all of our students, especially our students who come to school with specific needs, be it medical or any sort of learning disability or any other thing. We want to make sure that our children are engaged, learning the best they possibly can, so we'll always strive to make sure we're doing better.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I'll just remind the member for Kings West there is about seven minutes left in this section.
MR. GLAVINE: Madam Minister, I know this has been not just the flavour of the month, the topic of the month, but one that will probably go on for several years, in my view, and that is the Reading Recovery program. I did have an opportunity to speak to three or four teachers in my area, over the last couple of weeks, who teach the Reading Recovery program.
I was wondering first of all, if any boards have asked to continue the program - in other words, they're working on their cost efficiencies, their reductions and changes, but still feel they have some room to be able to offer it. I'm wondering, has any board asked to do that, especially if you take a look at HRM where you have supplementary funding and often there are programs there that the board does offer?
MS. JENNEX: There has been no board that has asked that specific question in that context. I have had one board that asked me about their ability to retain Reading Recovery, but I explained that we were making sure that we were broadening it to Primary and Grade 1. Under Reading Recovery we couldn't do that because it's a trademarked program. It only meets the needs of the lowest 20 per cent of only Grade 1 students. The question that you asked, if they could offer it - I don't know how they could offer it and pay for that along with making sure that we're also broadening the service for children starting in Primary, moving into Grade 1, with the framework to meet the needs of children who are coming to school and are having trouble with literacy development and learning to read.
Reading Recovery is a program that is very narrow, very prescriptive. In no way do I want anyone to ever think that I think that Reading Recovery is not a good program, but it is a program that if we had a surplus of money - if we had lots and lots and lots of money, we could have Reading Recovery and, and, and - there are many ways we could spend money in our education system. But to make sure that we're meeting the needs of our students - and I recognize that we need to meet the needs of our students earlier, and the best way we can spend our money is to open up the framework so that children from Primary can get picked up, moving through Grade 1.
Again, Reading Recovery is only meeting the needs of our lowest in Grade 1 and then, because we have - at the Department - we're now able to actually track and see success with that program, which hadn't happened over the number of years, because when you're actually going in at Grade 3 and the children are doing the ELLA, the Early Language Literacy Assessment, that is when, over the last two years, we were able to see that Reading Recovery students were not retaining the information that they received. Only 43 per cent were achieving the level we wanted them to be now - not exceeding, but just at the level - so 57 per cent were not meeting the level.
Thank goodness we are now able to track; we'll now be able to track our children. I know that was a question - will we be tracking the new framework? Well, yes, absolutely, because of course we pick our children up in Grade 3, we evaluate and see where they are, then we check in again at Grade 6 and see where they are. So we are able to see where children need help and where they need supports.
Now we are able to see that Reading Recovery didn't bring the results that we wanted in the long term, which was unfortunate. It also comes with unintended consequences, too, where children were actually, because it is a pull-out program, one-on-one, they were missing their math, social studies, and other areas of the curriculum. They would come back in the classroom after being out for 30 minutes or more, because of the transition time of walking down the hall to the Reading Recovery teacher's classroom, they came back in the class and they were a little bit - well, not a little bit - they were displaced for a while. Those were the unintended consequences of Reading Recovery.
With the new framework of Reading Recovery, we'll be able to meet the needs of more students, and we are going to be able to track.
I also want to say that teachers who were teaching Reading Recovery, I can recognize that this must be a difficult time for them. I appreciate that they are working with their school boards within the capacity of where they will be, either in a classroom or whatever. But Reading Recovery, the original question around Reading Recovery is that no, school boards will be offering the framework that we will be coming with just in a number of weeks, because the school boards have been working together on that framework. So we're going to meet the needs of more students, we're going to have small group instruction - one-on-one is more flexible, it's an equitable program that we're bringing forward.
MR. GLAVINE: A short snapper. I'm wondering at what point, or do we have to go down the road of several years before we will evaluate and assess this new approach because there is a lot of wonderment about how effective - four of the five teachers I've spoken with all had opportunities because they were resource-related as well as doing Reading Recovery and have had the opportunity to work in small groups. It's a bit of divide and hope you conquer if a teacher has four children that they're now dealing with. That's one of the realities. We know that in some schools already, as teachers and schools are looking at the framework for next year, that, in fact, we're going to see . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time allotted for the Official Opposition has expired.
Before we move on, I'm going to ask the minister if she needs a break.
MS. JENNEX: I'm fine, but I think that maybe everyone - I'm concerned that maybe it would be nice to take a five-minute recess just to stretch our legs.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Five minutes. A five-minute recess and then we'll start with the Progressive Conservative Party.
[7:10 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[7:15 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We will now commence.
The honourable member for Hants West.
MR. CHUCK PORTER: Mr. Chairman, it's good to have the opportunity to ask a few more questions. I want to pick up where I left off. I want to talk a little bit about the review process, and I did mention it by way of that one school in the Windsor Forks area. It was reviewed in our board, I think the principal told me it was 12 or 14 years ago, although it seems much sooner than that because there was a lot of discussion and it didn't seem, as I said, very long ago.
Anyway, on that, knowing that I have a school, Newport Station Elementary School, my school, where I went to school as a kid and grew up and there are very few students there. I think there are 80-some maybe there now; the numbers are low in comparison to years past. Obviously that is one of those schools that is having a hard time meeting its population base and there are mixed reviews. Some are saying - well, you can go online and read - just close it and get it over with, and others are saying, save our school. I'm sure you know more than - or as much as - the rest of us what that's like.
Do you have any idea of when the next review will be, if not provincially but within the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board and how this would work? When would we see a review of the actual system, and would there be a potential that school might close? Just thinking about the efficiencies, thinking about dollars, of course, it's all relative, as we know. Is there a potential that would happen or maybe there won't be a review for a lot of years ahead yet and that we wouldn't be dealing with it anyway, it would just stay status quo?
MS. JENNEX, Mr. Chairman, the question is around the school and closure. It wouldn't close because it was reviewed 10 or 15 years ago. What happens is that the school boards have a very strict guideline in terms of time, and if they were going to put a school on a review list - well for this year that time has passed - they had to have that information into the department already, so there is a criteria based on how a school gets on a review list and, as I know, many in this Chamber would recognize that the community could be involved at that level. It depends on how school boards approach - if they do have a public meeting or not.
I want to say that because a school gets on a review list, "review" and "closure" should not be used in the same sentence. In some cases schools are going to close, it just makes good sense for a school to close, but we can't assume that a school is going to close because it is on a review list. After a school is on a review list, then the school board has the guidelines that are in terms of time of when they need to approach the community and the community has the opportunity, on two different occasions, to have their input.
As I think I said earlier, the community could be recognizing things that a school board or a Department of Education would never understand about a community because the community will be, at two different points in a process, able to provide that information to the school board. The school board would make the decision as to what is going to happen to that school. Now in some cases a school might close; in another case there might be some recognition that the school needs some enhancement or some alterations.
It also could be recognized that in a community of schools that it would be good to enhance one and close down another, but the community is always involved in this process and it is very clearly mandated and it is in the Act, too - it's definitely policy. All school boards fall under exactly the same criteria and that information for school review, if any parent, or if you would like us to provide an overview of the timelines for that, we would definitely be very pleased to do that.
The school board would need to have put the school that you mentioned on a list and it's not on a review list, and because it has been on a review list in the past does not mean it can go into the next step, it would have to go back to review.
MR. PORTER: Mr. Chairman, I should clarify, I wasn't referencing in any way that the school should close, or otherwise, and I wasn't very clear on the fact that I wasn't thinking that that review back those years ago in my area would have reflected the current-day situation of that elementary school. You've answered the question basically and said that it has not been done this year, and I was curious as to whether the board had started that process given that this particular school has been an issue by way of student population for a couple of years now, and whether or not they decided.
Obviously they decided, for whatever reason, that it would not be reviewed - if I heard you correctly - that they have not made that or started that process, Newport Station Elementary School. That would be in our board, of course - do you see it there? It is under review?
I was surprised when you said - and I'll let you speak to that - that it wasn't because, not that anyone has contacted me, but it just would have seemed abnormal for it not to have been under review, with the shrinking population. Of course what does that mean? I realize there are steps and it is lengthy to close a school, and so it should be, it's a huge step in any community regardless of the issues and why and so on.
But, at the same time, there are still 70 or 80 or 90 kids maybe, who do attend that school, and albeit a small number for that facility, those kids still have to go somewhere. So what does that mean? It may cost - not may, it will cost transportation and whatever other stressors that will go along with a school closing, and I am sure there are many. I know there are many.
Then again we have this issue of the next door neighbour school, Three Miles Plains and, as I spoke to earlier, they are already running out of room - so what happens then? We have Brooklyn that is holding their own as well, so there are these other issues to consider.
My question is, and I'll let you speak to it, that school in Newport Station, from what I think you've indicated, is on the review list. Maybe you can take us, just for the record, through the steps then. It's on the list - where are we going from here? Just for the clarity of Hansard and the folks who are going to be asking the question, the parents, grandparents, et cetera, and the students who are involved in that school.
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, I apologize, I missed the name. There are two schools in the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board that are under review for this year.
The board needed to make that list public by April 1st, so all the schools that are going to be reviewed are available to the public; then the school board tables an Impact Assessment Report - that process has to be in by May 31st and that gives the school board staff additional time to prepare, so by May 31st we have to have the Impact Assessment Report in to the department; then a study committee is established, and that is established on June 15th - there's a very firm timeline for that; the study committee needs to hold at least one public meeting before February 1st; and then a study committee submits the response to the board and that has to be in by February 1st - I apologize, I'm going to go back, I have two columns.
The study committee has to have their report in October 7th, not June 15th, that gives the additional time; the study committee submits response to the board by February 1st; the board tables the study committee report at a public meeting, and that public meeting has to take place by February 28th; the board conducts at least one public meeting - so there's the second public meeting I mentioned - that has to be done before March 31st; then the board makes its final decision - now the board would make its final decision on what would happen to that school, what result that is, by March 31st; and the board gives public notice of its decision by an advertisement in a public newspaper by April 15th or within two weeks of a decision being made.
I'm going to have that written up in those timelines and definitely provided to your caucus, and to the other caucus, so it will clarify those timelines. I know that the first point of entry that many community members will make is the MLA office and it's very important for MLAs to recognize that this is a board process and they have their timelines and procedures around that. So you can rest assured we'll have that to you within a day or two. It shouldn't take very long to have that available and we'll make it available to both caucuses.
MR. PORTER: Mr. Chairman, that's a good, detailed explanation. Thank you, Madam Minister. I just want to pick up on one piece so that I'm clear.
April 1st, which has now gone by a week ago - 10, 11 days ago - would have been the date that would have had to have been made public by the board in my school district area, through a Web site or through a local media outlet. What does "public" mean, in your opinion? I haven't had any calls and I'm very interested. It's peculiar that I've not had one call on it. I've just raised this on my own, knowing that we've heard about this now for some time, but I've not had one call that this school is under review. I'm not sure that the notice has been given - is there any way to confirm that the board has actually done that or is there a process through the department that says, okay, minister, we've done step one, April 1st we've committed and we've done as we're supposed to do by way of policy?
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, board meetings are public and they made the decision at a board meeting - and the other framework that you're mentioning, I don't know. I don't know if that's in policy, but board meetings are public and their minutes are put on their board Web sites. So I'm not sure - I know that the department was notified by all of the boards, what schools, and I knew within, like the next day, after board meetings. So the only thing I can say at this time is that it was made at a public meeting.
MR. PORTER: Thank you, Madam Minister, for that. I'll delve into that a little deeper; I guess I'll go on-line and look at the minutes and stuff as well.
You mentioned that there were two schools in the Annapolis Valley Board. Are you - I guess they're public - can you divulge the other one?
MS. JENNEX: Absolutely.
MR. PORTER: I'll start there.
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, Annapolis Royal Regional Academy is the other school within the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, and they will be preparing an Impact Assessment Report for those two schools.
MR. PORTER: Mr. Chairman, good, a very detailed and lengthy process of that and a huge step to go through. I'm sure it will be interesting as we make our way through it and there will be a great deal learned from that experience as well.
I hate to say I'm looking forward to that, but it's time and I am looking forward to it in a way just to see whether or not it's going to be - I don't want to use the word "worthy" either, every school is worthy of being open - viable to maintain. We want to do the right thing, obviously, and that's to support our kids and our families, and families that live there and especially, as I said, it has a special place in my heart as I went to school there. That was my home and my elementary school, a couple years back when I went to school.
AN HON. MEMBER: Quite a few years.
MR. PORTER: Quite a few years - well, maybe a few years but, anyway, thank you for that.
I want to talk about a couple other things here with regard to the school. The program where we have 4 year olds starting Primary, I would like you to speak a little bit to that, as to whether in your opinion, or the department's opinion, there is any data that says this has been successful or otherwise. I hear a lot of mixed reviews on this.
We have kids going to school at four who are having issues, having difficulties - I see them. Every child is different, as we know, in their ability to learn, and those who are already having some issues with learning difficulties, and now you're bringing them in a year earlier. I'm just curious as to how that's going because of where we're going with cutbacks, teacher aids or student assistants - whatever we're calling them these days - EAs is what we're calling them now, educational assistants, and others, we have parents coming in and working one-on-one with kids.
I know all the schools are different in how they operate. I know in my local elementary school in Windsor anyway, and I know in other schools, not only Windsor but all the elementary schools, they belong to the parents, they belong to the children, and the principals and administrators are very good about that. We do see volunteers coming in to work with these kids, so, again, back to the issue of four year olds - anything to say that this is a good step, bad step, or what? I'm kind of curious.
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, I just want to clarify that there was a change in age for students entering school, but it wasn't by a year. Previous to this a child had to have turned five by October 1st and it was changed that a child had to be five by December 31st. So it was a difference of a number of months, but it did capture more children that first year coming into the schools and they were coming in a bit younger.
The Department of Education did provide in-service to Primary teachers on early childhood learning, and one of the things is that when this happened the department did provide not only the in-servicing but some more equipment, and I say "equipment", more playthings, some things that went into schools, a little bit more of a transition from a preschool into schooling. So there was support brought in for the teachers in bringing in the group of children that would - I think it was a difference of three months, so it wasn't a year's difference.
Now, one of the things the policy changed basically, that across Canada they were trying to bring it in line to what's happening in other provinces, and in Nova Scotia we have a rich heritage of people who are in the military - I mean, look here in Halifax with our Navy. We have a lot of people who move in and out of the province with the military and so it was bringing Nova Scotia in line with other provinces, because you could actually arrive in the province and in another province your child could have been in school. Now if they were already enrolled in school, they were never refused - no child ever started Primary and then didn't have the ability to be in school. But it smoothed it out, especially for our military people and people who transferred. We are now in a global world, people are moving around, and so that was the reason for the change. Educationally, support was provided for the teachers and in the schools.
That being said - that wasn't your question and I do try to answer a question that's asked - at this time I don't have any data or any feedback that I can share with you about how it has worked or how it is not working. But I want to say that parents know their children and you don't have to send your child to school if they are four, you can wait a year - we have that flexibility in Nova Scotia. Many, many of us in this Legislature have children - some of us don't - but one of my children was a late summer child so she didn't turn five until August. Now that I know what I know, I would have kept her home with me because academically she was ready, but socially she wasn't and that carried right through the school years. Every child is different and so I guess you have to trust yourself and listen.
One of my friends had a little fellow and she decided that she wasn't going to send him to school, that he would have another year of preschool in nursery school with his friends. We have that flexibility. We have to trust the parents that if they don't want to send their children to school - but once they come to school every child is welcome, as you know. We meet them at where they are, and every teacher in this province who is a Primary teacher - and as you probably know I taught Primary for many, many years - there are supports available for teachers if they have any questions. We have experts in early intervention and early childhood learning at the department - we have a lot of resources available.
I don't have any data to share with you today, but my feelings on entering school is that parents know their children and they are the best judges if they are ready or not to come to school.
MR. PORTER: You say it's a matter of a few months, but really it is a few months and another year, because if you do decide to hold them back it's still another whole year of development between four and turning five. As per the old rule, if they hadn't been turning five they'd still be held over for another full year before they could start elementary school, which does give them another whole year of either daycare, preschool or home-based development before they do go into school.
I have noticed and have heard, and it doesn't matter which school, there are schools that say they get a mix of both - they get a mix of some who are pretty qualified to come as Primary students, and some who probably are on the line and they are not fully ready yet. Some of them have difficulty speaking - there are all kinds of scenarios, as we all know, and every home is different in time and stimulation and all these things. Whether they've gone to daycare or preschool, for example, makes a difference in the child that sometimes doesn't, just because they are used to a population of kids around them and a variety of things like that.
So I was just kind of curious as to whether that has been made available, but it will be interesting to see. I'm not sure when your collection period will be for the data, and I assume that you will be looking at this, given that it is, and has been, a significant change. Being unable to say for the better or worse, I think that being in line with the rest of the county is a good thing - I do understand that piece of it. In fact there are families, as you've mentioned, like the military families, that do move. I remember in school some kids moving from Ontario, as an example, who would be a year ahead because they started that year earlier and the system is different - or wherever they are coming from, it doesn't matter, we should be at the very least equal in our levels and grades of educating.
Okay, I'll look forward in years ahead to see how that does go. I certainly pay a lot of attention to my own schools - I'm sure you do, and other members do as well - as to what information does travel back, and it does find its way back to us, fortunately, as to how that goes.
With that, I have a couple of other things I wanted to bring up and it has to do with kids who are a little older now. I have four children, as you know, three of them still in school. One is in Grade 10, and I had a letter - it came home and I found it kind of interesting and I'm just going to share this. There was a question; it was a memo sent home from Avon View High School in Windsor, and it said that success in mathematics, while extremely important in order to obtain entrance and often success in a number of post-secondary and employment areas, continues to present a number of problems for students at the school, and not only this school, but across the province, across the country.
Students are finding it very difficult to master that next level of mathematics, so they're lowering it. I don't know what the next one down is, not basic math, but they're dropping their levels of math. They're struggling. I know kids who have tutors at home that parents are paying for because they just can't get the time in school - not that the teachers aren't trying to provide it, they are, but with class sizes the way they are and so on, there just aren't enough hours in the day and I know you can go in at recess, noon, whatever, and after school the teachers are great. I would never say anything other, because I know them and they are doing a fine job there, but still kids are struggling to get this math. They're saying, okay, enough is enough, we're going to drop down a level, we're not going to persevere, we're not going to do that.
I'm curious as to what your thoughts are, as the Minister of Education, on a memo like that being sent home saying that kids are having problems with math. Should we be looking at this and asking, how reasonable is it to have a level of math - where does it fit across the province, across the country by way of being equal in educating? Is our math different than other provinces? Is it the same curriculum? Is the curriculum too difficult?
I know there has been all of this bit about math scores and we tend to put an awful lot into it. My kids bring math home and ask me to help - and I was pretty good with math in school and numbers are my favourite thing - but there's some of the math I look at and say I'm sorry, you're going to have to take that back and you're going to have to ask your teacher because this is long past what I ever learned. And it is - there's algebra and then there's whatever this other stuff is that they're bringing home. I don't even know what it is.
I'm kind of curious, such materials being sent home, it's a bit of a discouraging thing. Are there other ways to tackle the problem, in your opinion as the Minister of Education, and in the opinion of folks in the department?
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, there were a couple of questions in that and I guess what I want to say is that I don't want to respond to a letter that I'm hearing of here because there may be a letter that came before that or after that; I don't know who wrote it. And mathematics is one of those areas where we recognize how important it is for all of our children to make sure that they can master different levels of mathematics.
Now, at the high school level we have different math taught. We have pre-calc, we have calculus, we have, for the want of a better word, fundamental math - I don't know all the names - and then we have advanced math. We are recognizing that there is a lot that children need to learn in our math curriculum, but when you learn it you need to master it. It has been recognized that there have been an awful lot of outcomes that children have to meet, and if you have a lot of outcomes and you don't have that time to master each outcome, then you end up with a very thin understanding of math when we want deep understanding of math - if you have a deep understanding of certain outcomes you can build on others. The deputy minister and superintendents across Nova Scotia have agreed to adopt the western and northern Canadian protocol curriculum.
Education is a very interesting portfolio; it's not federally mandated, each province is out doing their own work. I have to say that I'm very honoured to work with CMEC, the Council of Ministers of Education, and these are topics of conversation that ministers across the country are having to make sure that all of our children in all of our provinces have the literacy and math they need to be successful in life. Recognizing that we were extremely ambitious with the math curriculum, it's not lowering the standards, it's just lowering the outcomes that children need to have a deep mastery of, so that as they travel through NSCC or to university, or whatever, that they have that fundamental math mastered so they can be successful.
There will be a new curriculum coming out with outcomes - I don't like to use the word "modified", I have to be careful of my words - we've decreased the number of outcomes. You can just imagine trying to figure out which outcomes because you want your children to know absolutely everything, but you can't teach absolutely everything, because then you end up with children not having the time to practice. I always look at it as the first time you hear something or learn something, okay, you kind of get it, you kind of just have - it's like the Hogg formula, I've had to have it explained to me a number of times.
I would have to then have some practice with that, and then I'd have to apply that in the real world and work within a grouping to get that deep understanding of how that worked. If we did that, we just wouldn't have the time within the school day to be able to give the children the level of mastery around that. So it's been decided that the outcomes are not going to be as many, so that children have the ability to master the outcomes that will be.
Now the implementation of the new material and resources is beginning next year because there has been a great deal of work around that, and that will be starting at the Grade 3 level because, as you know, the most important thing about math you learn is in Primary. We always forget that the understanding of what number is is the whole basis of being a good math student - we can never underestimate the valuable work our Primary teachers are doing in having our children understand the concept around number.
Math literacy, as we move through, is very much a big part of the success our children are going to be having in school and when they finish school and with what they need to carry on with if they go to NSCC, if they go into the workforce, or if they travel on through university - and especially if they're travelling on with the maths and sciences component of their schooling. I hope I've been able to shed some light on that.
MR. PORTER: Thank you, Madam Minister, and yes, you've explained that in some detail, fundamentals and advanced math, those are the two.
What I was getting at is here is a Grade 9 student who is getting ready to move on to high school and has to start choosing their courses and doesn't have an understanding of what the differences are. They're thinking, oh, I have to take advanced math because it's supposed to be the top math, yet fundamentals is just fine too, only to be explained later.
That's the situation I'm in with my kid right now, who is in Grade 10. She struggles all year long with advanced math and the teacher says, why are you taking it, you can take fundamentals. She comes home and says I'm going to drop down to fundamentals. The first thing I think is no, no, you have to have good math because you're looking at university, and God knows what after that. Math is important in life. (Interruption)
My colleague said you mentioned they need to know everything, and he says they already do - to some degree I guess they think they do.
Anyway, you can just see how this controversy - you have kids who are 15 or 16 and they think I don't need this or I do need that, and the message isn't clear. It's interesting to say there will be different outcomes and a new curriculum, maybe based on all of this, and there will be some changes to that math program - and I think clarity is important, not that the school is not providing it, I think it's just a lack of understanding of the student who is young and leaving Grade 9 and trying to figure out what they're doing with the rest of their life.
When you're in Grade 9 you don't know if you're going to university, NSCC or going to work, in all honesty. I think you have in your mind, I might do this or I might do that or I could or could not, but you're not there yet and it's until you reach Grades 10, 11 or maybe even 12 before kids are deciding their future. Those who do before that are very fortunate and stick to it. They all have plans, but I don't know how many actually stick to the original Grade 9 or Grade 10 plan that they're laying out - I don't know what the numbers are, I shouldn't say not many, I don't know what they are, but not all, I do know that.
It's like French immersion. Kids say, oh, I don't want to go into French immersion when I go into Grade 7, it's too hard. What are you talking about? It's not that hard because they're teaching it in Grade 6 and they're telling you it's not that hard, but there's this - I don't want to say "selling" it - but believing in yourself and that your kids can move on and it's not as difficult as it's made to sound. So there are a lot of similarities there to me.
So thank you for that, yes, it's interesting to hear and I'll look forward to next year and new curriculums and things and just to see where that goes - and perhaps that will also be of some assistance to the guidance counsellors and the teachers and so on who are trying to help these kids make their way through.
One of the things I want to talk about, and I know it's all in policy, and that is buses, bus routes, and bus stops. I know that there are issues around safety and turns and distances for stopping. I know that Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal has an involvement in helping to set that. I used to be able to quote the policy off by heart because I dealt with it so much in the first couple of years, and I still deal with it - last Fall was probably one of the busiest times I ever had, as well as Dave Crouchman who is my local bus garage guy who manages hundreds more calls a day on this thing than I do. There are always issues with bus stops because every new Primary student, their mum or dad wants them picked up at their driveway. We all understand that. We know that's not the reality, but we believe that there is something more reasonable than what's in place today.
You're expecting a 4 year old now, as an example, in a rural area with no sidewalks and no lights, because it's dark at the end of the day or dark in the morning - I'm sure you've heard them all, I don't know, but I know I have, there's a whole array of stories and they're all right, that's the thing, and I say that sincerely, they are, they're right, it's hard for a 4 year old to make his or her way down and walk quite a little piece to get on a bus that only stops every three stops in 1.6 kilometres, or whatever it is, and you try your best to explain the safety issues to parents
Well, the safety issue is you let my kid walk down the road and there are cars flying up and down, you hear it all. This is not new - at least not for me. I've probably written every minister - I don't know if I've written you yet, but it will come - with regard to this policy and looking for changes, or at least a review on this to see if there's something else that can be done.
Now, I appreciate that you can't stop at every driveway, I really do, and I think that parents do, and they'll tell you in the same breath, oh, I don't want them to stop at my driveway, but right next door would be nice. You have to think about these kids who are 4 years old now and 5 years old, whatever they are. I'm not sure that there isn't room for some changes in this policy, at least to review it. I know we did a distance walking policy, or whatever you call it, three or four years ago, whatever it might be, and I know that you or your department probably can quote exactly when that was, and if you followed that, there would be even more people upset because there would be no buses in some areas.
Now, in the Town of Windsor, where I live, when I went to school there were no buses in the Town of Windsor and, until the new elementary school was built, 15, 18 years ago, whatever it has been now, I don't believe there were any buses in town and everybody walked to school, to the old elementary school there. Now I think there are six buses that take home a couple hundred kids every day, 230 or 250 kids, whatever might be there. So you can see how we've made it better for families, in some way, but at the same time we always walked that. Why are we busing them? I'm not saying we shouldn't bus them, but there are some inconsistencies in all of this over the years about how we've developed the whole busing schedule.
I know there are changes, and why we had increased calls last Fall is because we had the split shift the year before at Avon View and everybody - there were issues then and there were issues created when we moved back to what we call normal now by way of the two schools in operation. I would really like to see us doing something by way of this policy, keeping all of the safety aspects, the Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal distance stopping, but there are a lot of areas where it would seem reasonable because when I get calls - and they do seem reasonable - I usually go out. It's not my job but I'll take a drive through. A lot of times I'll know the people calling me, where they live, the rural area, and I'll have a look and say, well, I didn't measure this because I don't know.
But the way that measurements are done, I mean you have this little cone that's six inches high and you're way back there 60, 80 or 100 metres, whatever it might be, and you've got to see this. You try to explain that to people and they're going, who came up with that rule? I could see a bus parked there from a mile away, so you can appreciate where they're all coming from. Are we planning any review of the bus stop situation by way of the number of stops? And my question along with that - what difference does it make how many stops there really are? It doesn't matter what the distance is, whether it's a mile, two miles, three miles - does it really matter how many stops there are, provided they can do it safely?
MS. JENNEX: The number of stops and the safety and traffic issues around busing falls under the mandate of the Utility and Review Board. I think the member opposite recognizes that is who has the responsibility around busing, the Utility and Review Board. Every school board has their own policy and there are good people working on those boards who do listen to parents and take into consideration a number of factors - I can't speak for all boards, I only have experience with the board I work for, so I don't know in terms of policy with all of the boards.
You bring up some valuable points. Even though this isn't something the department can speak to because the Utility and Review Board actually mandates that, but I know that with technology today and with our ability to hone in on an area via satellite picture down, this might be an opportunity for school boards to actually do some collaboration and talk about policy and the best way forward.
I have to think about - the member opposite has four children and, as you know, I raised four children, too, and the bus stop where my children were being picked up was quite a hike down the road and I was a working mom, as many people are, so I used to take the children, as they were getting older, to a neighbour and drop them off in the morning and they would all wait at the bus stop together. And as I'm driving through the community I see many parents waiting at bus stops with their children.
Where I grew up we walked great distances to school and one of the things we are recognizing, and I know the Minister of Health and Wellness isn't here to hear my - I guess I'm not allowed to say that she's not here, I'm not allowed to say that . . .
AN HON. MEMBER: But she is here; she is here.
MS. JENNEX: Oh, I apologize. The Minister of Health and Wellness is greatly concerned about the obesity rates of our children and one of the things we need is to have our children walking. Of course safety is our highest priority, but we have gone from a society that has places where our children can walk to school and, if they're not being bused to school, I have seen children from my own neighbourhood getting in cars to go around the corner to be dropped off in front of the school. We have to look at this differently. We need to have our children walking to school. We have neighbourhoods where children can walk together and parents who can work together to make sure our children are getting there safely.
The school bus issue is with the Utility and Review Board, but I want to go back to the fact that we need to have our children walking to school to get some fresh air, walking together with groups and having that social time, and also making sure that we're up and moving so that our children can become healthier - the obesity rates are alarming.
I was in Ottawa quite a few weeks ago actually and this is an issue that is with the Canadian Ministers of Education - it was brought forward by the Minister of Nova Scotia, around reports done about children and the lack of movement. There was a study done here in Nova Scotia where children were wearing an accelerator - it's different than a pedometer. A pedometer gives you your distance, this gives a little bit more data. We're finding out that children in the Province of Nova Scotia are extremely inactive and as they grow older - little children are moving a little bit more, but by the time our children are in high school they're hardly moving at all. When we think that our children are moving, like on the weekends, they're moving less than when they were in school - if they didn't go to school they wouldn't have that physical activity at all. So this all ties in with school busing and issues of safety are paramount.
The Utility and Review Board does have that on their agenda to make sure that's being maintained. Also at each board we have personnel who are working on that issue, but we also need to look at the fact that when we can walk we should encourage families to encourage their children to walk. Maybe this is a time period that if you are able to walk to school with your child before going to work, or arrange with somebody in your neighbourhood, or drop your children off so they can all walk together - I think it would be nice if we could look at that.
MR. PORTER: Thank you, Madam Minister. You're right, the Utility and Review Board, that's great to say that they control that, but at the end of the day it's still a government responsibility, it's still a parent responsibility, and it's still a people responsibility - it's the responsibility of us all to see that our kids get to school safely and are returned. It's the teachers' and the administration's responsibility to see that they're looked after when they're there. I don't think there's any misconception about that.
I also have probably one of the best you'd find anywhere, Dave Crouchman does a fine job and I would not want his job for $1 million a year, taking those calls and having to deal with all of those parents. He has a solution. I could ask the Minister of Finance since he has a surplus and wants to spend some money, we could put sidewalks in all the rural routes around the province, at least Hants West - I'll speak on behalf of my folks. We know that's not a reality either, so there is the aspect of safety and walking.
I would like to see some more done on this issue. I think there's a lot of room for change there. I know from talking about the numbers - and I only bring it up because I don't know what other members get for calls, I do know what I get and I do know what Dave gets at the office - the numbers are high. There is nothing to compare them to because I've never asked, but the numbers are high, and that's concerning. It says, obviously, there are some issues here, whether it's educating parents to policy - well, you can tell them about the policy but there's a lot more to it than that, as we've already discussed. There's some room there for some work to be done, in my opinion.
I'm going to hand off here in just a couple of minutes, but I couldn't close out without a bit on the - you've heard it constantly - Reading Recovery program and the importance of it. I've just pulled together a half a dozen letters here from educators from across Canada, from teachers and parents, about the importance of this program. I've talked to some of the administrators, I've talked to teachers in local schools and they're optimistic with what's being said, that maybe the program you're going to offer up will be as good.
I've heard you quote the numbers in the 43 per cent or 47 per cent, whatever it is - you feel that's where Reading Recovery has taken us. But one success is a success - one student is a success if they have gotten something from this program. I also understand the need to reach as many as we can, that's important to me as well. It would be to any parent who has a child who needs extra time, extra care and whatever the program, call it what you want. I know the teachers and administrators I'm talking to are concerned, but at the same time they're waiting, they're hopeful that what will be offered in place of it will be just as good, if not better. We can only hope for just as good, if not better - and obviously better, given the numbers you're quoting.
On that - without quoting all of what I have here; I don't have the time for it - my last question before I hand off to the honourable member for Cape Breton West would be: In this new program, do you really think we're going to excel past that 40-odd per cent that we meet today with Reading Recovery? Do we really believe, and do we have data that backs it up that says whatever program it is you're going to bring in - I don't recall the name and I apologize, but I know you'll give it - is going to be better than Reading Recovery, not just because it reaches more kids, or has the opportunity to reach more kids because there are still going to be kids - and I know you know this - who are going to need one-on-one.
It doesn't matter what you call it, there will always be these children - and I know them and they'll always be there - who need one-on-one, not just in Grade Primary and Grade 3. There are a lot and it goes on all the way through, unfortunately for a lot of classes and a lot of grades before they can wean off and start to mould back in. I would never like to say that you're putting a program in just because or it's not something you're sincere about or believe in or the department hasn't done some work on, but I want to hear that you can give me some numbers that - maybe you can't, I don't know.
You know that it's 43 per cent, I'm sorry, whatever it is on Reading Recovery, what's it going to be on what you're proposing?
MS. JENNEX: I wouldn't be able to give numbers because numbers for the Reading Recovery have only been made available to us because of the ELLA over a two- year period. We put in, a number of years ago, the ELLA, the Early Language Literacy Assessment, therefore getting the data back from Reading Recovery.
Now, you made a comment that for every child's success that's one child's success and I totally, 100 percent, agree with you, but I'm also looking at the child who didn't have even the ability to get that success. This framework that we're going to be bringing in in September is that we are now going to be able to broaden out, because Reading Recovery is a prescriptive program that only can work with the child one-on-one, and the framework that we're looking at is that children can work in a group, no more than three.
I know that the honourable member opposite thought it might be more than three, but it's only three because research firmly establishes that children who work in groups of three benefit far more than just one-on-one. Now, that being said, one-on-one is going to be part of this framework - if the child, for whatever reason, needs to have some one-on-one work, that can be made available. It's the needs of the children - now a child might have something that has happened that they are distracted, they need to go out and work on one certain concept and that will be made available.
The other component of this is it's going to be small group work. A component of Reading Recovery is best practices in teaching children how to learn how to read. Components of best practices are utilized on a daily basis in all of our classrooms across the province. Under this new framework the teacher that has this as part of their job will be working with the classroom teacher - they could actually be in the classroom working with a small group while the teacher is working with the other children in groups. All children nowadays within their reading groups are all working within groups. It could be that the classroom teacher works with that small group and the reading teacher, and we don't have a name at this point, will be working around the room.
So it's flexible, it's equitable - and Reading Recovery had no flexibility. It's not the children who were captured under Reading Recovery, it's the children who weren't who are of most concern to me. Interestingly enough the data coming provincially was quite eye-opening, that 43 per cent of the children were reading at the level we would like to see them. What's happening to the other children? It was that concern, it wasn't as successful as we would like but it's a trademarked copywritten program that required - a very prescriptive way that that child received that support. Successful, yes, but not as successful as we would like, so therefore this program is broadening so that more children will get the support that they need.
Can I give you the numbers? No, I can't. But are we going to be evaluating that system, that approach, that framework? Absolutely. It's also going to be evidence-based as to which children are going to be captured in requiring that support. The same as in Reading Recovery, only more children will be captured in that, starting in Primary. We're going to have speech and language pathologists help us with assessments in the early years to make sure that children are in actual need of the academic support, because it might be that they need some other kinds of special education style of report.
So, numbers I don't know, but we will be able to find out when we do our assessments as our children travel through the system, and we'll also be able to compare that at some point with the data that we had on Reading Recovery.
MR. SPEAKER: The honourable member for Cape Breton West.
MR. ALFIE MACLEOD: First let me congratulate the minister on her new position and it's a pleasure to see her and her staff here tonight.
I know you've talked about the Hogg formula a few times tonight, and school closures in rural schools are something that are near and dear to me in Cape Breton West. We have two schools that are up on review right now, one is in Port Morien, the Gowrie Memorial School, and the other one is the East Bay Elementary School. Under normal circumstances the Hogg formula allows for extra funding for small rural schools under 100 students; however, if they are complexed - that is they are affiliated with another school within the system - then the Hogg formula does not apply to that small school. Case in point, East Bay Elementary is complexed with Mountainview Elementary School, so they have the same principals, two different facilities, different numbers of students - the East Bay Elementary has a smaller number of students and it is being denied, under the formula, as I understand it, the funding from the Hogg formula, so now that school is up for review.
I wonder if the minister could explain to me why, when a board is trying to make a system as efficient as possible, a small rural school, which in any rural area is the cornerstone of their community, why it is that the school would be penalized or the system would be penalized and the parents would be penalized?
MS. JENNEX: I guess I want to just start off with it's the children that I would be most concerned about because that's why we're all here. In education and as MLAs, we want to make sure that our children get the best possible education that they possibly can. That a school is on the review list doesn't necessarily mean they're going to close and that's where we need to have the input from the community. Having a robust conversation and input from the community can make a decision that is going to best benefit the children - no decision that any school board makes is going to penalize a student in our system.
Now, you were talking about the Hogg formula and I want to say that the Hogg formula is complex and I think that's one of those outcomes, maybe, if we have in our math curriculum that children would actually go through and have a very deep understanding of, but they don't need to because the Hogg formula is being reviewed this year. Small school funding is provided to help fund schools that cost more to operate at the present time, but in terms of the Hogg formula, that is being reviewed, so that whole issue will be looked at as the review goes forward.
MR. MACLEOD: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister for her answer. I guess there is nothing more certain than we are concerned about the elementary children and the type of education they get. That's the very reason why an elementary rural school is so important to keep open.
The first thing you're doing is you're causing small families to get on buses earlier. I live in an area where my children used to have to get on the bus at 7:25 every morning to go off to Grade Primary or Grade 12 - it didn't make any difference. When the Hogg formula is not allowed for a school that's complexed, we are actually making it harder on the child. I heard the minister speak earlier about how important the child's health and welfare is, about them getting the proper nutrition. Any child that you get up very early in the morning, put on a bus very early, all day is travelling and comes home late at night, it is really putting their health and some of their needs at question. What we need to do is make sure - or at least the parents that I represent and as a parent who lived in a rural area - I firmly believe that we need to do something to make sure these rural schools stay open.
Some will say that small schools are not always efficient, but small schools have turned out some of the best leaders in our country. They come from rural areas and they get a very good education because one of the things that happens in a small school, as the minister would know, is there's very little bullying because everybody marries and takes care of the children that are there - and it doesn't matter to them if they're in Grade Primary or Grade 6, they are members of the family and they look out for each other. If the Hogg formula was allowed to be in place on a complexed school such as East Bay or Gowrie, then again we would have the opportunity to give a better education to these elementary schools. The minister was correct when she said that the most important thing is the education and the child, and how he or she receives it.
MS. JENNEX: Declining enrolments are causing us to make sure that we have to look at things differently, and we would have to look at the review with the Hogg formula, but I just want to go back - not all schools in the province will be staying open because as a review process, and I don't know about your schools in that situation, but some schools are at the end of their life cycle. Some schools are very inefficient with their heating. So, across the province, as school boards go through with review processes, many things are looked at. Enrolment is one of them; the state of the building is another; and what's happening in the community and the community involvement of what's happening in that school, because the community can be bringing forward their ideas of other ways of using a building for example - maybe in that community a school could partner with daycares.
Small rural schools are very important to the fabric of Nova Scotia - you're absolutely right, the community schools are very important, but as the school boards go through review processes many considerations are being made. The decisions that are going to be made are going to be in the best interests of children, and sometimes children are going to have to move out of buildings that are just not healthy buildings anymore, and to make sure that they can have absolutely the best program.
So, as I said, I'm not familiar with your schools. If they are on the review list, then the community definitely has involvement in looking at ways of working with their school boards. In terms of the enrolment piece, you were asking a number of different things, but in terms of the enrolment and funding with the review, that will be taken into consideration - absolutely. I just want to stand here to say, again, our rural schools, our rural communities and our schools are very valuable places for not only the children's learning but also as community centres, and all of those considerations are going to be taken as factors if a school is on a review list. But in terms of the formula that we will be moving forward with, those all would be taken into consideration too. So I thank you for allowing me to answer that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton West with 15 seconds remaining.
MR. MACLEOD: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman, I probably can't even clear my throat in 15 seconds.
I just want to thank the minister and her staff for the time and the answers that they have given here tonight, and I look forward to talking to the minister on a one-to-one basis on some of these issues in the future.
MR. CHAIRMAN: At this time I offer the minister the opportunity to make some concluding remarks and, when the minister has finished, she can move her estimates.
MS. JENNEX: Mr. Chairman, before I close I have a few things I would like to table. The honourable member opposite wanted to know about the list of schools for Options and Opportunities and that is being tabled; the information for Baddeck Academy, the Oxford Regional Education Centre, and the River Hebert School are all being tabled - that is coming from Friday's dialogue that we had here.
And I have a few closing remarks to make - I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and first of all I would like to thank the members for their questions and comments over the last two days. I will ensure that any commitments for additional information will be provided as quickly as possible and, if any member is interested in any more information regarding any issue related to Education, my office would be very happy to set up a meeting with me or with staff. At this time I would like to thank very much Dr. Lowe and Mr. Dunn for helping me address the questions that have been put forward over the last two days, and I also want to thank the staff who has been sitting here and observing this - I want to thank them for their support in helping me prepare for the estimates debate.
I also want to say before I close that I'm very proud to be a Nova Scotian and stand as the Minister of Education with the education system that we have in place. It's a world-class system and I think, as Nova Scotians, we need to be very proud of what we offer our students and families in the province.
We have dedicated, wonderful people working in our education system, from the janitor in the building, to ensure that the school is clean and safe for the children to arrive, to the bus drivers who get our children to school; the educational assistants, who support our students with special needs or with supervision, to the teachers who are there every day to engage our students and to teach them to the very, very best of their ability; and the administrators who oversee the work being done in our school to the people at the boards, and also our elected board for the work they are doing to ensure that we have a top-notch system.
I just want to say that I want to thank everyone who is involved in educating our youth, and our families for being partners. I guess I'd like to stand here to thank the children who are in our school system - we have some young people who are giving me some feedback now, especially around the issue of cyber-bullying. You know that is an issue that children are concerned about and they want to have their voice added and they want to offer their solutions.
On that, I would like to thank everyone.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E5 stand?
Resolution E5 stands.
At this time we'll call for a short recess to allow for the next minister and her staff to come to the Chamber.
[8:19 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[8:22 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. FRANK CORBETT: Madam Chairman, would you please call the estimates for the Minister of Health and Wellness.
Resolution No. E11 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $3,768,259,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Health and Wellness, pursuant to the Estimate.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. I now invite the Minister of Health and Wellness, if she would take the time to introduce her staff members who are here to address the committee.
HON. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and good evening to the members. I'm very pleased to be here this evening to discuss the first budget for the new Department of Health and Wellness for 2011-12.
I'd like to introduce to members, the Deputy Minister for the Department of Health and Wellness, who is probably very well known and needs no introduction, but nevertheless I will introduce him, Mr. Kevin McNamara, and the Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Health and Wellness, Linda Penny, who also needs no introduction, given that she spent 24 and a half hours on the floor of the House last year, in the Spring,= on last year's budget.
At any rate, Madam Chairman, I would like to begin by making some remarks about the Department of Health and Wellness and our vision for today's families in the Province of Nova Scotia with respect to providing timely access to quality public health care. This is a goal we set when we took office and one we share with our partners in the health care system, the district health authorities, and the IWK, the continuing care sector and other sports agencies. Through them we work to deliver health care treatment and services to the people of Nova Scotia.
This year's budget for the Department of Health and Wellness focuses on protecting crucial health care services as our province continues on the path to live within our means. We have a balanced approach as we move forward. On the one hand we must carefully manage a strong responsive health care system while at the same time place a strong emphasis on prevention. Since I stood here last year our government has merged two departments into one so we could bring together the best minds to help us make the better health care decisions. This makes sense - our province has some of the highest rates in this country for conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers, and it benefits all of us to have the key planners in our health system working side-by-side.
In 2011-12, this will enable us to develop strategies on how to combat childhood obesity and to prevent young Nova Scotians from smoking, in order to give them the healthiest possible start in life. We have invested $500,000 - that's half a million dollars - in this budget toward combating chronic disease.
I would like to take a few minutes to talk about the inroads we are making managing the costs of health care spending. This year our government made a deliberate decision to reduce the rapid growth of health care costs, which have doubled in the past 10 years. Previous governments did not tackle the spending in the same way as our government. They passed budgets that led to a $1.4 billion deficit.
Madam Chairman, ironically, when I was first elected to this Chamber in 1998, the health budget that year was $1.4 billion; today our combined Health and Wellness budget is at $3.768 billion. That's a 1.2 per cent increase over last year, but one that is 5 per cent smaller than previous years. When you stop and think about it, that's still a lot of money.
We have put a halt to the kind of unmanaged growth in order to protect health care services that Nova Scotians rely on and expect. We reached out to our partners in health care and they responded. I am so impressed that they, too, care enough about wanting to go on a different path, one that is more likely to lead us to a health care system that is sustainable.
I know it isn't easy for the nine district health authorities and the IWK, whose operational budgets are frozen at last year's rates. I know that our doctors across this province have put great thought into their decision to delay an agreed upon increase, but they did so because they want a province that is in more solid financial shape. They, too, want to help ensure that our province lives within its means, and these two steps alone result in significant savings in this budget.
For this year we have $15.9 million less to pay physicians as a result of their decision. District health authorities are now managing their own budgets with the same amount of funding they received last year. This is challenging work, especially when we see our federal health partners pulling federal dollars away from health care services that they had traditionally helped the provinces with in cost-sharing agreements.
For example, we are now funding the research into Fabry disease when the federal government has stopped, because we want to ensure that Nova Scotians afflicted with this rare disease are not abandoned. We must continue funding research that will help further generations. This year we will invest $280,400 into that initiative. As well, the Province of Nova Scotia has picked up the $1.3 million cost for the vaccination program for Grade 7 students to prevent them from getting the human papillomavirus that leads to cervical cancer.
Madam Chairman, let me reassure Nova Scotians there is money for better health care in these budget documents. Finance Minister Steele said our plan to improve emergency care is a central theme of this budget. Better Care Sooner, the plan we shared with the public on December 7th, just three months ago, is a plan that is supported in this budget.
I was very pleased last week to be in Parrsboro with our Premier and Dr. John Ross, our Emergency Room Advisor. This was an historic day as we announced our first Collaborative Emergency Centre. Dr. Ross provided our government with 26 recommendations last Fall, and with this budget we are moving on what he recommended.
We are investing $800,000 for new paramedics and other health care professionals in our collaborative emergency centres so that Nova Scotians have peace of mind 24/7.
A Collaborative Emergency Centre brings together emergency departments and local family practices working as a team to provide health care to Nova Scotians. The centre will be the first point of contact for patients. A person will go through one door, receive an assessment, and be directed to the correct health care professional. Specifically, the Collaborative Emergency Centre will provide access to primary care by a team of professionals, including doctors and nurse practitioners, for extended hours seven days per week; same day or next day access to appointments as needed; advanced access to care, which means that appointments will be left open each day for patients with more urgent needs; and 24/7 access to emergency care. Nighttime care will be provided by a paramedic or another health professional under the oversight of a physician.
Specifically here in Parrsboro, the CEC will operate as follows - from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. a team of physicians and nurse practitioners will be available to see patients. They will be connected to professionals within the DHA including dieticians, physiotherapists, social workers, pharmacists, respiratory therapists and others as required. At night, between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., a paramedic will be on-site at the CEC. This paramedic will be working with the oversight of an EHS physician and this physician will be available via telephone.
There are many other initiatives I want to share with you from Better Care Sooner, our emergency care plan. The biggest impact we have had on ER wait times is at Capital Health District's Halifax Infirmary. Last Fall I visited the brand new rapid assessment unit at our busiest ER in the province. This unit, as well as medicine beds that our government added, has helped more than 1,200 patients who have been diverted from the crowded ER to immediate assessment.
We are also investing in other areas of the province through Better Care Sooner. This year we will spend $1.5 million on nurse practitioners across the province. We will spend money to hire nurses working with nursing homes in four district health authorities - South Shore, South West, Cape Breton, and Cumberland - to better manage chronic disease. By having nurse practitioners come to the nursing homes, residents will have fewer trips to the ER. With this budget we have also invested in paramedics to 15 nursing homes in Capital Health where our highly trained paramedics are treating seniors in the place they live rather than making the frail and elderly wait in ambulances at the ER.
This budget also contains money for our world-leading paramedic service - Emergency Health Services. Our paramedics are second to none. The 2011-12 health care budget includes training of advanced-care paramedics to give lifesaving drugs to Nova Scotians having heart attacks, before they arrive at the hospital.
This program is designed to improve outcomes for patients suffering a heart attack by providing early access to potentially life-saving advanced medications previously only available in our hospitals. By the end of this month the RESTORE program will be available across Nova Scotia. That means Nova Scotians should call 911 so they can be treated faster, even if it is on their front lawn, as one heart attack survivor from Cape Breton shared with me earlier this year. We are one of the very few jurisdictions in North America to have paramedics trained with this capability.
Madam Chairman, we are also investing $466,600 to support the 811 Health Link Line, which has seen a marked growth of 30 per cent since December because so many Nova Scotians are learning that they can receive advice from a registered nurse, on the phone, 24 hours a day.
Let me share with you a story I heard from a constituent who was ill and unsure about what to do. She called 811 and sought the advice of a nurse. The nurse determined it was best that an ambulance be sent to her home where paramedics arrived and did an assessment. At the end of the day the decision was made that my constituent should see her family practitioner the next day and arrangements were made so this could occur and she was able to avoid the long wait that would have occurred had she been taken to the emergency room because the acuity of her situation was such that she was not an urgent or an emergency patient. She was made comfortable by the paramedics before they left and she and her family were very pleased with the service they received all the way along the line, both through 811 and through 911.
I have another story of a busy mum who wasn't sure if she should go to the ER. She called 811 after hearing radio ads played during the winter. The nurse on the line asked her how much pain she was in and upon hearing that it was severe, she recommended she go to the ER - this turned out to be life-saving advice because the woman had meningitis.
I am sure some of you have spoken to young mothers awake at night with a new baby and are unsure what to do. They call our line and get advice. So you see there is professional advice and help readily available in our health care system.
Madam Chairman, we have also dedicated $3 million of additional resources, through the Emergency Department Protection Fund, to ensure we will have the needed investment to address this important work. So while previous governments have failed to deal with chronic emergency room closures, this plan will allow Nova Scotians to have predictable, reliable emergency care. This budget also allows us to address the long waits in our emergency rooms in and around the metro area. One of our major investments of $2.2 million will be to extend the hours of the Cobequid Health Centre, which is serving a growing suburban population and reducing pressure on the province's largest emergency room. Nova Scotia is now the first province in Canada to develop ER standards and we will work with our district health authorities to meet those in the years ahead.
Standards and quality patient care remain very important to me and my department. Our department is striving to make improvements in quality and patient safety, and I am pleased to inform the members that as part of our commitment to patient safety we have established a Quality and Patient Safety Advisory Committee chaired by physician Dr. Pat Croskerry, a national expert in patient safety. That committee will ensure that all existing national and provincial reports on patient safety will be carefully reviewed and acted on as required.
The Department of Health and Wellness has further supported government's commitment to quality and patient safety by expanding the capacity of its Quality and Patient Safety Division. The division now includes infection prevention and control and wait time improvements, and places the responsibility under one executive director for health care, quality, safety and wait times improvement.
With this budget, we also remain committed to investing in health information systems as a way of improving patient safety and faster access to test results in doctors' offices. Through technology we are making great progress understanding our orthopaedic wait times. We have applied the knowledge we have learned through data to help those patients waiting for a consultation with their surgeon, and for the first time Nova Scotians are seeing an orthopaedic surgeon for consultation within the national benchmark of 90 days. This information has helped them better understand what they have to do while they wait for surgery. The four regions of the province where we offer orthopaedic surgery are embracing this new approach and we are making a $616,000 investment so that patients see shorter wait times. We continue to work toward improving the time it takes to get a surgery and we look forward to reporting more success as we achieve it.
There is no question that information technology touches many aspects of health care in this evolving electronic era. For that reason IT represents a major investment, and this year we will invest $7.4 million to continue our work on a new drug information system. Once in place, that system will allow us to deliver prescription drugs more safely to Nova Scotians by reducing or eliminating the risk of error associated with unclear handwriting, or dangerous reactions from multiple prescriptions.
One of the cornerstones of our plan to reduce unsustainable health care costs is our plan to reduce drug costs for both taxpayers and seniors enrolled in our Pharmacare Program. Last July we replaced the expensive brand label of our most expensive drug - Lipitor - with the generic label helping thousands of Nova Scotians. As well, we went to a request for proposals for that generic drug- and I can never really say this but I think it's atorvastatin, and we're estimating $6 million in savings. I am very pleased to share with the members the success we have had in starting to manage our drug care costs. Our plans for the future will be shared with the public, and today I was pleased to lay out the features of those plans, and we tabled a bill here earlier today on fair drug pricing.
We could no longer afford to do nothing, Madam Chairman. With drug costs rising so rapidly, they represent 7 per cent of our budget, only through reform will we continue to manage costs and be able to add new drugs, as we did in this budget, to pay for drugs like Lucentis, and hold the line on Pharmacare premiums, as we have been able to do.
Our goals with this plan are to get the fair drug prices that Nova Scotians deserve, contain the rapid growth of government spending on drugs so that Pharmacare remains sustainable, and ensure Nova Scotians are able to get the services they count on from pharmacies in their communities. We are also proceeding this year with changes to the Pharmacy Act that will allow pharmacists to play an expanded role and will result in Nova Scotians having improved access to care.
The amendments will allow pharmacists to administer drugs, including vaccines, to order and interpret certain diagnostic tests, and to adjust a patient's medication without them having to go back to their doctor - all of these improvements will help Nova Scotians access services faster and often closer to home.
We must also be strategic in our capital investments. While I wish we could do more, there are $72 million of capital projects that will lead to better care sooner for Nova Scotians, especially those with cancer. Cancer places a great stress on families and we know that once someone is diagnosed, they want treatment as quickly as possible. This capital budget contains money to purchase and install three new radiation therapy units for the Capital District Health Authority and we will invest a total of $12.7 million.
Cancer patients in Cape Breton have already seen quicker appointments and services, all within benchmarks, thanks to the expansion of radiation therapy services in Sydney. Nova Scotia has some of the best clinicians in cancer care in this country - now we will also have some of the best treatment options available. Those people in Halifax and surrounding areas who need radiation therapy will have treatment sooner because of this investment. This is an example of health care services that needed to be protected.
The long-awaited Aberdeen Hospital expansion will begin with funding through this budget for Phase I of that ER renovation. As well, we will invest in the Inverness Hospital so that the community health centre link is completed this year.
Mental health, too, is another area in need of enhancement. The news is often full of stories about depression and how it impacts various groups - teenagers, for example. We will continue to work with all districts to reduce waits and particularly with the IWK, to address wait times for children and youth in need of mental health services. We are starting the public consultation process, seeking input for our mental health strategy, which will provide clear direction for the steps we must take to improve mental health and addiction services for Nova Scotians.
We are investing $4 million in this budget to complete by this Fall the community living units. They will provide appropriate, respectful care for individuals coping with mental illness.
Seniors, too, are another growing population in need of specialized care and services. Our Better Care Sooner plan pays special attention to the treatment of the frail and elderly as they move through the health care system. As well, seniors are getting more financial support to remain in their own homes and communities as part of government's plan to provide "better care sooner."
We have added $1.85 million to expand the Caregiver Benefit so that another 400 people can qualify by redefining the criteria. Low-income seniors who live alone and who receive publicly funded home care services are also encouraged to apply for the new Personal Alert Assistance Program. It provides up to $480 per year to eligible seniors to purchase a personal alert assistance service, and last month we also launched the Supportive Care Program for those people with cognitive impairment. Those who quality can receive $500 per month for home support services such as snow removal, personal care, and respite care. That program began this week and will support 230 clients a year.
These are part of our efforts to make life better for Nova Scotian seniors. We will also support the continued development of new long-term care beds to give seniors more options closer to home when home is no longer an option. This year alone we will spend $21 million for 762 beds, 169 new beds, and 593 replacement beds with ones that are more modern and address the needs of the elderly better.
In closing, Madam Chairman, let me thank the 41,000-plus people who work in our health care system. I have had the pleasure of meeting some of these people in the past year as I've toured the province and spent time in our hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, and waiting rooms. They have my support, gratitude, and respect. Thank you and I look forward to answering questions from the members.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Clayton Park.
MS. DIANA WHALEN: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and I would like to know how much time is left in our evening.
MADAM. CHAIRMAN: It is 35 minutes, approximately.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much, and thank you to the minister for having her remarks available for us to read because it does help - you have covered a lot of ground today in your opening statement and certainly touched on some of the many initiatives that are underway, many things which are on your agenda, which is good. We're happy to see a lot of those things being remarked on and pointed out as priorities for the government. A lot of them are areas that the minister knows are of interest to me, certainly mental health you talked about, just towards the end, which is very important and, I think, a root cause of so many of our other problems that we do face and other costs in the health care system, so that's just one example of the areas of interest that I see there.
Today was a big day where you introduced one part of the drug pricing and, again, we're glad to see where's that gone, but also very anxious to see how the other pieces fit together. Some provinces dealt with the issue of drug pricing along with their compensation or tariff agreement with the pharmacists and the expanded scope of practise all in one package. We're looking at it in three components, so I guess the way I felt about it is stay tuned because there are two more pieces to this puzzle that we have to see come down. I know we're not too far away from it - I think July 1st is the tariff agreement goal.
There are certainly a lot of areas that we do want to explore with you and I know the other members of my caucus, and I'm sure of the Third Party, will want to ask some questions too. We don't have a lot of time tonight, and I think everybody's a little tired on Monday night. I have some questions related to the estimates particularly. In just looking at them - of course you mentioned that two departments have merged into one and now rather than being the Minister of Health Promotion Protection and Health we now have Health and Wellness under one banner.
That can be good or bad. I know when we first set up a separate department, it was very much so that the whole idea of wellness, fitness, healthy lifestyles, prevention of disease could be highlighted and could have that focus. The fear is that within a budget of $3.7 billion, almost $3.8 billion this year, it just might be so overshadowed that it will be lost. I'm hoping that the minister was cognizant of that and thinking of that as you set up the merging of the two departments and just look at how you can keep the focus on trying to prevent disease, because ultimately that's what we need to do if we're going to rein in this budget.
I know the minister mentioned the huge cost that we have here with chronic disease and with some of the worst population statistics in the country. I think it's the highest level of cancer. We have the second highest death rate from cancer. We have high cardiovascular disease incidents. We have a lot of very unfortunate statistics. I think we have the second highest level for childhood asthma. I mean, it goes on and on and I think we need to keep our eye on the ball when it comes to the prevention of disease. I know that one of our Leaders, Danny Graham, the member for Halifax Citadel at the time, had spoken a lot and initially, I think, helped to push the Progressive Conservative Government to open the original office.
I do accept that there can be savings by coming together and having all the - I think what I heard the minister say, it's the first time I've really seen the rationale, having all the experts under one roof working together to try and take the doctors and the others who are working on illness, focusing everybody together to try and bring our best minds to the case of how we improve our population health and how we look after Nova Scotians.
Those are important things, but I was referring to the estimates and the trouble we have now is how do we measure the estimates when last year's budget doesn't compare directly to this year's budget? We have different items that have now been merged together and the budget of the Department of Health, Promotion and Protection has been blended into this year's budget before us.
Some of my questions are going to be somewhat simple, perhaps, but it will be to try and identify where we were looking for line items and trying to identify where they didn't appear last year, where have they gone, up or down, and that sort of thing. It is a different looking document than last year. As I say, I think that's a good place to start where we are getting some background on that.
I'm starting right off on 14.2, which is the Executive Administration and the Programs - right there at the top of 14.2 - and when I saw it there was one question I actually had, for a number of them, the estimate for last year, on a number of these, doesn't jibe with what the estimate is for 2010-11. To give you an example, Executive Administration, the very top line, for the 2010-11 year it says in our budget this year, it says that our estimate last year was $52,698,000 but if you actually looked at last year's, it's different by $670,000. If you actually had last year's budget book before you, it showed $52,028,000, which was $670,000 difference. That one's not so huge, but I wonder why it wouldn't be a figure that's set in stone. If it was last year's estimate, it's last year's estimate. It also varies by over a million dollars, $1.6 million, on medical payments and it varies by $10 million on pharmaceutical - and maybe Ms. Penny has the information there, I hope.
That is a question, yes, there are the three items and the estimate, you understood it, I'm sure. That is my question and I think they're looking.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: My staff are indicating that we're not really sure why the estimate is changing. There has been reorganization inside the department and this probably accounts for why there are some differences in the line items that you see.
MS. WHALEN: That would be something I would ask you to look into. I realize that if it isn't a clear understanding right now then I'd like you to look at it, only because something like pharmaceuticals, for example, I wouldn't have thought you would find in the Department of Health Promotion and Protection budget from last year. It should have been a line item last year under Pharmaceuticals. We do see in that one, and it's a huge budget because that, of course, is a big program, the pharmaceutical one this year was $265 million and last year was $254 million - it's a $10 million difference.
Today we were talking about the savings in pharmaceuticals that we're looking for being in the $6 million range, so $10 million is certainly something that I think we'd like to narrow down and identify where it comes from. So that was one thing and I think in a couple other departments we've seen a difference in that estimate figure and I just thought it should be set in stone. I didn't have any academic accounting reason for it, I was asked just because I have some accounting background but I said I don't know why that would be. So we'll leave that one there and those were the three items that I saw in it.
If we could go to Page 14.4, a couple pages along, there is a question here on Executive Administration - again, I guess all those programs fall under that. There is an increase of $20.8 million over the forecasted amount and almost a $15 million of that increase falls under the category called Contracted Administration. I'm wondering if you could break down that $15 million line item, the second to the last, Contracted Administration. What I'm asking there is what would be included in that and are those consultants or some other kind of temporary employees? That's the question.
It's on Page 14.4 under Executive Administration, second from the bottom of that list of programs and services, so if you look there its Contracted Administration. I took that to be people on contract, perhaps, and it's at $14.9 million this year.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: That's the Medavie contract and the Quickcard dental contract, so for all of our MSI payments, the Medavie contract and the children's dental program.
MS. WHALEN: You mentioned the Quickcard dental program and that is for children age 10 and under, does that also cover the people who get any dental care under social assistance?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: That's a separate contract, and I believe that would be in the budget of the Minister of Community Service.
If I can, Madam Chairman, to the member, with respect to the $10 million on the drugs, we had exception drug programs. This would be drug programs, for example, for people who have had transplants, who have to have very expensive drugs. So that was moved from another part of the budget into the Pharmacare line and that is what accounts for that - it is a reorganization that allowed us to improve the administrative efficiencies of some of our programs.
MS. WHALEN: That is a significant amount of money, so that would explain it. Can you let us know whether that Pharmaceutical line has gone up or down or stayed flat this year?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD:Is the honourable member wanting to know just the exemption drugs or the pharmaceutical?
MS. WHALEN: Again I'd like to be able to compare that number. Since two items have been merged together, I'd like to know overall, you may have redistributed them a bit between but when they are together, are they more or less than last year and how much more, if that's the direction they are going? It's just so I can compare apples and apples
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Thank you. It's cost- neutral, there's no change.
MS. WHALEN: I'd just like to go to another area of this spending while we're here. I'd like to look at communication officers within the Department of Health and Wellness. I know we have seen an increase over the years - I don't know if it has just been in the last two years or if it has been over many years, but I would like to know, within the department, how many communication officers you currently have? If we could just start with that.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: While we are having the financial people find the information, I think it's important to have an opportunity to talk a bit about the earlier question that the member started with, with respect to the merging of the department and the wellness component. I didn't have a chance to respond to that and I would really like to do that.
I did point out, in my opening remarks, that we have allocated $500,000 in this budget, half a million dollars, toward the work around the chronic disease management strategy. I think it's very important to reassure the member that not only this minister and the government but the personnel in the department are very much committed to a wellness agenda that would see the continuum of the work that is done in the department reflect a very strong commitment to prevention and health promotion.
This is very much reflected in the approach that people are taking. As we look at setting up the collaborative care model, primary care, to work with people, part of that whole focus is not only to deal with illness and disease but really it's to do more work around preventative health care and better management of chronic diseases. In a way the entire focus and priority of the department with respect to Better Care Sooner, is one that approaches health care in a much more holistic - I suppose you could say - way, in many ways.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you - and I'm not sure if it's difficult to find the number right now on communication staff?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Part of the difficulty in locating this information is the communications folks are with the Department of Communications Nova Scotia; it's a different department. However, we have seven staff.
MS. WHALEN: Could you let me know how many there were last year and whether or not you brought some people who had perhaps transferred with you from Health Promotion and Protection?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: The deputy tells me that when there were two departments, when I had Health Promotion and Protection and Health, there were nine staff; we now have seven.
MS. WHALEN: I think that is a positive thing. I wonder if you have any plans to hire more at the moment.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: No, there are no plans at this time.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much, that's a good, quick answer.
Madam Chairman, I wonder how much time is left or if you could tell me when our time elapses?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Time elapses at 9:29 p.m.
MS. WHALEN: Okay, we have quite a bit of time, 15 minutes or so, that's good.
As we're talking about staff, I know I took one small component when we talked about the communications staff, and I don't want to suggest we don't need them because one thing I have seen was, for example with the H1N1 last year, there was a major campaign to educate and inform people right across the province about how to protect themselves and to orchestrate people going in for inoculations and what to do with your children and so on, and I realize there was a big campaign. We spoke a lot about reaching young people on the university campuses and young people who might not otherwise want to get an inoculation for the flu.
So I know there are times when you do need to bring in expert people and be able to set up Web sites and do communications. I realize it is not all political communication, but it's an area that we're interested in, at the same time, just to monitor, but I often see a very important use for the people in communications - I didn't want to suggest to the minister that I was not aware of some of the really important work that's done beyond political interests.
I felt while we're talking about staffing, we might go to the full staff complement for the department and try to compare again where you were with Health Promotion and Protection and where you are today. Just looking under the FTEs that are shown in this year's estimates, we have a small number funded by outside agencies, but not very many. I guess I'll go with the ones that are departmentally funded, which is the bottom line and it shows an estimate for last year of 397. You were about 50 or so below that in the forecast for the year at 334, but we're going up to 505 in the coming year, so our estimate for 2011-12 is 505 full-time equivalent positions.
So I would like to know if you could identify - certainly one component would be the people who have come with you from Health Promotion and Protection - are there any other major changes or anything that could really account for the over 100 positions and, in fact, we're closer to 200 when you take your actuals and, at the same time, there may be positions that were not filled because you were, again, there were at least 40 below your contingent on your estimate for last year. So there may have been positions left unfilled because of your merger, perhaps?
That's what I heard at Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations recently when their numbers were off - they're getting reorganized, so they've left some positions unfilled to give them the flexibility to do it and get the right people for the right jobs.
I think the minister is gathering it up and I will turn the floor over to her, if I may, Madam Chairman?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Madam Chairman, first to the member, I would like to correct the numbers I gave you on the Department of Communications staff. They actually were twelve and nine - so twelve pre the merger between the two departments and nine now with the merger, rather than seven. I apologize for that, but that's the first thing. Now, with respect to the numbers of staff, the increase in the staff is due to the merger, so it is HPP staff coming into the Department of Health and Wellness and there's no other anticipated number of new staff - that's more or less showing there on the bottom part, the various positions, the project, the full-time, yes.
MS. WHALEN: I wonder if the minister would give me the exact number that came from Health Promotion and Protection and then we could perhaps add them to the budget from last year, the FTE budget, and see just where they come from. I don't have one that breaks it down by program.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Madam Chairman, there are 144 positions from HPP as far as I can tell.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much. That would give us, if we took the number, the 334 you have at the end of the year, which was your forecast for 2010-11, and you added 144, you'd still be under 500 - I get 478. I did that quickly.
I'm wondering if you have a lot of unfilled positions because you were down significantly from your almost - I don't know that it's 10 per cent, but you were down about 10 per cent, I would think, from where you had budgeted at the start of last year. I'm just trying to explore where those positions are.
I know that the government has a program of reduction. You're looking for 1,100 positions to be reduced over - I believe it was a three-year plan from the Public Service. That is really a cornerstone of the savings that government is looking for, the Finance Minister has talked about in terms of curbing spending and being able to meet your targets of turning around a deficit into a surplus position, although we had a surplus last year, much to everyone's surprise, I guess - I know it was a surprise for me, too.
Anyway, I know that's not where it was expected to be and that's not where we're looking at this year. In order to get to a positive position, we have to see some reductions. I'm wondering if that is part of the trend, but the 505 wouldn't really indicate that it is. So I'm wondering if you could just try to explore a little bit with me where the positions are that may not have been filled, or whether it's a deliberate effort to leave some unfilled so you can have flexibility, perhaps, in any reorganization.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: In addition, there were 25.2 FTEs where individuals were working on projects that have been completed. There are also several new positions that will be added to Physician Services, but that's very small - it's 2.9, so I think that will reconcile with the 505.4.
MS. WHALEN: In the new drug unit that you're going to be creating - I don't have the exact name of it - it's your Drug Management Policy Unit, and I'm wondering if you'll be looking at new positions there as well. We just talked about 2.9 on Physician Services. That is a new initiative and I would like to know, what are your plans around hiring a director and staffing it appropriately? I know that would be top of mind, you were looking at that today.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Madam Chairman, I want to thank the honourable member. I am very much looking forward to being able to announce further developments around the Drug Management Policy Unit. I think this is a very exciting opportunity for the Province of Nova Scotia to do some of the other pieces that we talked about around our plan for better utilization of drugs in the province and to manage and control spending but, more importantly I think, to get better health care to people in the province.
Earlier today I indicated that the Drug Management Policy Unit, when it is set up, it will have an additional two full-time equivalent positions assigned to it. However, the resources for those positions are not new appropriations in this budget, but are being found through internal resources.
MS. WHALEN: Thank you very much. I think that is pretty good. On the 25 positions that were projects that were completed, would that mean that those people were contract employees and that they could - again, the department had the flexibility to allow those positions to expire and you didn't have an obligation to continue them?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: These employees were either term or casual employees. Many of those positions are now vacant.
MS. WHALEN: The reason I find that interesting is if they're vacant now, does that give you the capacity to again - and I've talked about flexibility, the flexibility that if you're reorganizing you can have those FTEs ready to fill? I know we have money identified for them because again, your budget is 505 employees, so one would guess you've budgeted and have the funds available to move into other positions.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: I think that these were additional positions, these were excess positions and they're not positions that we necessarily intend to fill.
MS. WHALEN: I think maybe we can go into this some more tomorrow. Again, I think it's going to be a bit larger, but you are budgeting 505 employees and if I take your forecast at the end of the year and add in 144 from Health Promotion and Protection, that's 478 so we're still about 25 off. I think in your budget for this year you've got 25 more employees that rest there and I guess I would ask the minister whether, within the Department of Health and Wellness, you'll be able to reduce your staff this year in any meaningful way towards whatever contribution you will make towards the 1,100 reductions that we're looking for over three years?
I'm really trying to tie in your budget of FTEs to the Public Service Commission's commitment to decrease staff through, as I understand it, a rather gentle way of attrition. I don't think the government has any plans to do any harsh cutting, but if you're going to have attrition, where is it, is what I'm asking, and what would your contribution be towards that?
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: I think there are an additional 20.8 FTEs showing up that are staff funded by external agencies. We have provincial programs in Nova Scotia like Cancer Care Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Speech and Hearing, and a number of other agencies that are provincial programs that aren't funded through the DHAs. We think that is what is contributing to those additional numbers that you're seeing there.
MS. WHALEN: The numbers I am looking at are the ones that are departmentally funded staff, the bottom line. If we went to the totally funded staff, including the ones from external agencies, the total for the year would be 526 instead of 505. That may be a component of it, but I am just suggesting there is something more in there - not that I think there's any conspiracy in it, I just want to understand that number, that's all.
Again, our time is a little bit short today so that may be something I can come back to, which would allow staff to have a look at it tomorrow and just get a better sense about what you'd like to do with that in particular. If that sounds reasonable, I think we might go with that.
I'm going to go back again to Page 14.4 which has a list of various programs. There are a number there that come from the Health Promotion and Protection. We can tell that because for last year they don't have a figure beside them, they have an (A). I'm not sure what that stands for exactly, but they weren't part of your department so I guess they don't appear there. The lines I'm looking at are Public Health Office, Physical Activity, Sport and Recreation, and Addictions/Problem Gambling and Drinking - three lines in a row.
One of my questions would be the Public Health Office, we couldn't find something comparable when we looked at the Health Promotion and Protection budget from the year before. I'd like to know what was assigned to that last year or what line item it might have been in, just so that we can do a proper comparison year over year to know what that is. It's a $9.6 million item just identified as Public Health Office - perhaps we could start with that.
MS. MAUREEN MACDONALD: While we get the absolute correct answer on this, I'm going to take a general stab at this. In Public Health we have the Medical Officers of Health in each of the district health authorities or the regions and that would be there; we have Public Health nurses; we have nurses who work in each of the DHAs of the Public Health offices - all of those programs that we deliver like the vaccination influenza programs and the visiting new babies, those programs. This is the Public Health section and I feel quite certain that those are the programs that you see. In terms of giving you more detail from what was there last year, we will attempt to do that. That's the general overview of those services.
MS. WHALEN: I think with the minute remaining it isn't really a good idea to ask another question of the minister. I have some more just line by line for our discussion tomorrow when we start back in. I certainly wanted to, again, thank the minister for the comments that she made outlining some of the initiatives that are there, and I do want to talk more tomorrow, particularly on mental health and your strategy around that. I'd like to know, in looking at that, about who has been consulted in the medical area and whether we're making use of a lot of the experts that we do have here in our province.
There are some nationally renowned researchers in that area, and in the obesity strategy as well, that's coming up, I'll just mention that Mount St. Vincent University, which is in my riding, has a number of researchers in their nutrition department who are specifically doing research on childhood obesity. I had a chance to visit their lab where they have healthy children, not large children or obese children, but healthy children come in and do studies where they are . . .
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order please. The time allotted for the consideration of Supply has expired for today.
We stand adjourned.
[The committee adjourned at 9:29 p.m]