HALIFAX, FRIDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2017
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Chuck Porter
MR. CHAIRMAN: I now call the Committee of the Whole on Supply to order, and we will continue with the Estimates of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
The honourable member for Cape Breton Centre with 19 minutes remaining.
MS. TAMMY MARTIN: I have a question specific to my area in Cape Breton Centre. We have a high school called Breton Education Centre that now houses students from Grade 6 to 12 because of student enrolment declines, et cetera. I have come to learn that their water is undrinkable. I guess it is drinkable - it’s just discoloured. I have had complaints from staff and students about the water situation at BEC.
I mentioned this to you in the hall, that I had sent you an e-mail, so I thought I would ask it here. The water coming into the school has been shut off coming into the school. The water fountains are taped off so that students don’t use them. However, when I inquire about it, I’m told that the water is drinkable, but it’s just not aesthetically pleasing because it’s discoloured and brown. Can you shed some light on that situation?
HON. ZACH CHURCHILL: Thank you for that very important question. I am actually very familiar with BEC. When I was in Grade 10, before I got cut from the basketball team, we actually played at the Coal Bowl at BEC, so I am very familiar with the school. I know that it is an aged facility. I believe that this situation is being managed by the school board so they’ve been trucking potable water into the facility, and there is a capital request in for maintenance. We are undergoing that process for capital as we speak and, of course, health and safety of our children are always the most important factors as we consider those capital upgrades.
MS. MARTIN: The information that I’m getting is, yes, there is a capital request in for the replacement of the pipes. However, management team within the Cape Breton Regional Victoria School Board tells me that it is a huge cost and because they were told that BEC would be replaced anyway, so the replacement of pipes wouldn’t be going forward. So which is it - are we getting a new school or new pipes?
MR. CHURCHILL: There are two different funding streams. One for long-term capital projects, so facility replacements would fall under that category. There is also another funding stream for capital repairs, which is to deal with the more immediate challenges and maintenance issues in our schools. So that is the difference in terms of funding. In terms of our capital process, both can be considered, so one doesn’t preclude the other.
MS. MARTIN: I guess my question to the minister is, which will it be? Are we getting new pipes or are we getting a new school? How long is it acceptable to not be able to drink the water in the facility because it’s not aesthetically pleasing? Can you give me a definite timeline on this?
MR. CHURCHILL: To be clear, students are being provided with clean, potable, clear drinking water as we speak. The board has been managing that situation and ensuring that everybody has access to that, just for clarity of the House.
In terms of specific timelines for decisions on capital repairs or facility replacements, I cannot give a specific timeline right now. We are undergoing that process. We do have to undergo a process through the Department of Finance and Treasury Board before those plans are finalized. What I can assure the member is, that process is well underway, and as soon as we know when our capital plan will be released, of course, the public will be made aware.
MS. MARTIN: I would ask if the minister would agree with me on what a huge waste of money bringing in bottled water for the students and staff is, rather than just fixing the problem. We need a high school. At the end of the day, whether it’s fixing the pipes or giving us a new high school, we need a facility. Has there been money allotted in this budget for either one? Has there been something actually allotted in this budget to address this issue?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do disagree. I do not think it is a waste of money to ensure that our children are receiving clean, potable, clear drinking water. I think that is a wise investment from the board at this particular time as we look to address the capital pressures on the system from one end of the province to the other, and there are a lot of them.
There is a lot of pressure on our budgets in the education system. There is a lot of pressure on our capital needs. We work very closely with the boards to identify the top issues, with health and safety in mind, of course. The budget currently in this year reflects the capital announcement from last November but when we release our next round of capital investments, that will be reflected in the next budget.
MS. MARTIN: I believe the minister is misrepresenting my words. Of course, it’s worthwhile to spend money for healthy drinking water. However, it’s redundant to when we have the facility there, that we just don’t invest in fixing it rather than to continually pay for something that should be available for free, I guess is my point.
I look forward to getting that information regarding updates with this water problem. Now I will pass it over to my colleague Lisa.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. LISA ROBERTS: I would like to hear from the minister regarding the decision to suspend the School Options Committee process and what that means for the huge amount of volunteer work and effort and analysis that was done in my district to look at the needs of the different communities of schools and the recommendations that came out of that process.
MR. CHURCHILL: A very important question. I do want all the volunteers, parents, and community members and board members who invested their time in that process to know their time will not be wasted. This is simply following through with a platform commitment that we had to pause the school review processes for two reasons. One, to allow us to undergo an administrative review which will include reviewing the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and our school boards to make sure that the administrative model of delivering education in our province is optimal and to ensure that all of our dollars are going to help our kids in the best way possible. Of course, that could have an impact on the way some of these decisions are made in the future. I don’t know that now.
We have an independent consultant who is coming in to have that conversation with us. Boards will be fully included in that process and consulted and, as well, community groups. Also, we just think it’s really important, particularly considering that we are bringing forward a pre-Primary program which will have an impact on space and will need classrooms. The information on pre-Primary enrolment, to the best of our ability is available to school boards before they do make the final decisions on school closures.
I will add, though, that any decision that has entailed facility replacement, those projects are all moving forward. So, it’s just the process of school closures right now that is being paused. We’ve actually heard from community members that they are happy about that. We’ve heard that from some community members and I do want to assure the member that the volunteer hours that have gone in will not go to waste. That information will be absolutely key in terms of making these decisions, but we also need additional information to make sure we’re making the best decisions possible with the use of our space.
MS. ROBERTS: As I recall of the conclusion of the school options committee process on north end schools, there was no recommendation for a school closure. What was arrived at was a desire to maintain each of the elementary schools within walkable distance of the different communities that they serve, but also a recognition that an investment in a north end junior high would be the preferred option, moving forward with new investment. Recognizing that right now the junior high offerings for the North End, or Halifax Needham, are seen as not really fully serving the community and also not providing a space in an environment for the community to come together, and for those social relationships to build in a positive way, in advance of going on to Citadel High School.
Given that there was no recommendation for a school closure, does that mean that, in fact the department can act on some of those recommendations without waiting for this entire administrative review process to unfold?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member was actually correct in correcting me on that statement. It is not just school closures, it’s closures and reconfigurations. So these ones would fall under reconfigurations. I do appreciate your correction on that for the sake of the record here. And so, again, we do think it is absolutely critical that all impacted spaces are considered in these decisions. Pre-Primary as we move into phase two; phase three will undoubtedly have impact on space allocation. So we want to make sure that our school boards have the breadth of information that they need before they do make decisions on reconfiguration of school populations in schools.
MS. ROBERTS: There are some particular circumstances in Halifax Needham which make a prolonged pause problematic. One is that we are very close to the downtown of Halifax. There is a great deal of pressure on the land base in Halifax Needham. So the process, as it is supposed to unfold under the Education Act, which I would submit has not actually been the process that has been fully utilized by this government as signaled, or described to some extent by the Auditor General in his report last year.
That report suggests that first, the school board requests a school and then the minister gives an approval for a new school. Then a site selection committee is struck and that site selection committee recommends up to three properties, and then as I understand it, the minister says yes to that site, and then you move ahead. In Halifax Needham, coming up with three sites that are in play for any school would be very difficult. There isn’t that much land.
Right now we are in a situation where the Bloomfield site is available and the municipality has given the department, or the province in general - I guess, TIR and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development - 120 days starting on August 15th, to indicate some interest in that site. I would love to hear from the department how you are proceeding during that time frame.
MR. CHURCHILL: So in terms of the Bloomfield site, that has been a site that CSAP indicated they have interest in. HRM has passed the motion that would allow us some time to evaluate and assess that site to see if it is feasible. There are a lot of pressures on the CSAP particularly in HRM, which is good news, because we are seeing increased enrolment year after year in our French-speaking schools. I think that is really important for our student body. I am happy that more students are pursuing French language in our education system, but it has created some capital challenges and some pressures because of physical space available in a number of CSAP areas. I’ve met and spoken on the phone a number of times with Kim Gaudet who is the présidente of CSAP as well as the superintendent.
We have been in contact with HRM and CSAP on this particular site. What we are proceeding with is a full-site assessment to make sure that there is capacity there to deal with the student population that we need to deal with, and to make sure it is an appropriate site for the needs of students in the CSAP. That work is ongoing right now. The last thing we want to do is invest a lot of dollars into a site if it is not going to meet the needs of the student community. But that site is getting full assessment by TIR and we are working in conjunction with HRM and CSAP to do that.
MS. ROBERTS: I want to make sure that the minister doesn’t lose in this, that that site was also named. It couldn’t officially be named as a recommendation, but it was also very much in play under the School Options Committee process of the North End school review. When a North End junior high was spoken about and when that was landed on as the preferred outcome for the literally hundreds of people who participated in that process, Bloomfield for many different reasons was often top of mind as a preferred location for a North End junior high. It’s equidistant approximately to the three different elementary schools. It’s a historic school site, much loved and much used by people from across Halifax Needham.
The CSAP needs that the minister speaks to are 100 per cent real. My own children attend École Beaubassin, which is off the Bedford Highway. I can say that parents really debate whether or not to attend gatherings at the school because that it is such an incredible press of people. I remember attending when my son was four and my daughter was six. My four-year-old would take off, and every single space in the school is just jammed. It was the most unpleasant Friday afternoon trying to chase a four-year-old around bouncy castle. It is an incredibly full school. It’s at the point that it is hard to have a meeting with parents, even using the gymnasium. It’s incredibly congested.
The need for that school is super real, and Bloomfield is a potential site to address that congestion. There are other sites that could also potentially be used to address that congestion if the School Options Committee process were allowed to proceed. One real possible outcome of that process, if it were not stalled at the moment, is that Highland Park Junior High could very well become surplus. That is a site with a large playing field that has quite good transportation connections to the Bedford Highway and the Windsor Street exchange. It has a number of really nice elements that could make it an ideal CSAP site on the peninsula as well. Many people in the North End are saying, why aren’t they looking at that and letting us have Bloomfield? Right now, we’re sort of in a process where I think a lot of conversation that has been had is frustrated by this pause in the process.
Anyhow, I know from speaking with the Deputy Minister of TIR that the Bloomfield site is also being reviewed to see if it would meet the needs of the HRSB . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order please. Time for the NDP caucus has expired for this round.
The honourable member for Pictou Centre.
HON. PAT DUNN: I welcome the chance to ask a few questions and have some dialogue with the minister. Perhaps a comment on the following from the minister. During his mandate, allowing for all the policy changes that I’m sure are going to be occurring over the next few years, I’m hoping as this develops that it will be coming from the grassroots up as opposed to from the top down. When I think of that, I think of the teachers who are teaching in the classrooms on a daily basis in the education system, psychologists, guidance counsellors, and so on. I realize there’s a council there, and they’re doing a great job and so on, but that we will make a great effort to involve as many people at the grassroots as possible, because I really feel strongly that therein lie the answers to a lot of the questions that we have in our education system.
MR. CHURCHILL: A very great point, and I do agree with the member. We do need to have an inclusive process of decision-making in the department. We have to benefit from the expertise on the ground, harness the broadest consensus on how we move forward in a number of different ways. I do believe that we are achieving that. We’re doing that through a number of processes, namely the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, which the member referenced. These are teachers from each of our boards, a guidance counsellor, and a student who are taking a leadership role in the department in terms of developing policy and allocating resources.
This is the first time that this has happened in our province, where teachers have actually come together and been responsible for policy direction and budgeting. I really believe they’ve been wise in how they’ve allocated the budget so far to hire more teachers - 140 new teachers now are into our system to support class caps and I think the classroom council has done a great job on the attendance policy. We have a balanced piece of work that I think empowers teachers with some tools to address chronic absenteeism, while ensuring that students who are dealing with troubles at home, health issues, or have other legitimate viable reasons to not be in school, that they have the supports they need to achieve the educational outcomes that we want them to.
They’re tackling a number of other issues, including assessments and evaluations, reporting, use of technology in our classrooms, and this is all coming from the grassroots. I know these teachers go back to their home communities and discuss these issues with their peers and bring the best information forward.
We are also dealing directly with principals and our administrators in the education system through a principals’ forum. That is proving to be a very, very helpful organization. We know that they want to be empowered to manage their facilities properly and want to make sure that the right systems of support are in place to allow them to do that.
We are engaging both of those groups through these processes and also reaching beyond the education sector itself, for some outside input from experts on the issue of inclusion, who are also consulting teachers, principals, parents, and communities on the question as well. We have some really great people whom we’ve brought together for that, and we are really anticipating some recommendations that come forward in March, that I think will help us achieve some transformative changes in the system.
Just, again, for the members’ benefit, there is Sarah Shea on that group, Monica Williams, and Adela Njie. On the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions - I just want to make sure I don’t miss anybody - we have Sean Barker, who is an elementary school teacher from the Strait Area; Mélanie Belliveau, who is an elementary teacher from the CSAP; Cheryl Bourque-Wells from the Tri-County region, who is a junior high teacher; Michael Cosgrove, who is a high school teacher here in HRM. We have Jennifer Bruce, junior high school teacher from Chignecto-Central Regional School Board. We have Reagan O’Hara, high school teacher from Annapolis. We have Kerri Lynn Power, high school teacher from Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board; Cheyanne Tolliver, elementary teacher from HRM; Pamela Doyle who is the guidance counsellor; Amy MacKinnon who is a parent, I believe from the Barrington area; Myles Fox who is a student; and, of course, we have representation also from the union and the department on these groups.
So, I think, in terms of ensuring we’re getting the best information possible from experts, from people in the sector, and from the broader community, we really have inclusive processes that we’ve set up. We’re ensuring that this isn’t just unilateral decision making by the minister, but that my decision making is informed and empowered by people on the ground and experts in the field.
MR. DUNN: I’m going to follow up with something that the minister just mentioned with regard to the attendance policy. Again, over my 30-year career and the last 15 years of course being an administrator, a vice-principal and principal, a few things were bones of contention. One of them certainly was attendance, especially at the high school level. I’m hoping that, and perhaps the minister will make a comment - I’m pleased to see the attendance policy moving forward. I hope it will have some teeth in it that when push comes to shove at the school base level, that they’ll be able to act.
I guess my question would be, are you going to wait until this entire school year is over or are you going to review the attendance policy - perhaps halfway through it - to see how it’s working, the pitfalls and so on.
MR. CHURCHILL: The attendance policy has been activated right now as of October 1st. That is an enforceable policy from one end of the province to the other. In every single board, it is consistent from one board to the next. This is also a first for the province. Never before has there been an attendance policy province-wide. So we are very proud of that accomplishment and very thankful for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions and their work on it.
In terms of consequences and teeth in the policy, the toolkit we give teachers to ensure that chronic absenteeism can be properly addressed, I believe that we have achieved that. Teachers can now make a decision on credits for students in high school if those students are skipping class too much, so there are consequences now to making those decisions.
I do want to emphasize this policy is not just about consequences. That is a secondary matter, in my opinion. This policy is primarily about making sure that we are doing our very best to help our kids get back to school because we know they are going to achieve more when they are engaging in every single learning opportunity that are schools provide them.
When they are in class more, they will do better. If we can help them develop good habits of attendance early in life, then that will better serve them for the course of their academic career and beyond. A focus for their early years when it comes to attendance, there is not a focus on consequences for elementary and junior high students. The focus there is on intervention. If a student has missed a number of days and that becomes a concern to a teacher or the administration, there is now a mandate to intervene to understand why this is happening. Are there issues at home? Are they experiencing things at school that are making them decide to stay away, whether it is bullying, intimidation, or any of those things? Are they ill? What are the challenges that these young students are facing in terms of getting them to school so they can do their very best.
We have a pilot project that we are bringing forward in a number of schools, to ensure that there is a broad breadth of support available for these students. We know in some of these situations, it can’t just be up to teachers or administrators to help these students. Some of these situations are more complicated than what the education system can help them fix.
We are connected with Community Services, with the Department of Justice, and with Health and Wellness to make sure that whatever the issue is that these students are facing, that is preventing them or serving as an obstacle to attendance, we can do our very best collectively as a government to help them overcome those obstacles to get them back to school. That is the real focus of this. This is about student achievement. This is about helping our students do their very best.
Of course, when students are older, there has to be a sense of responsibility, so this does empower teachers and principals to make decisions related to student attendance and chronic absenteeism, which we would call skipping. I will also note that these decisions are the decisions of the teacher and the administrator. We are empowering them to make these decisions because they know best what the course of action is for each student.
I think this is something I have been hearing back from folks at home that they are actually very excited about. I have heard from our high school administrators, who have stated there is already a change in behavior as of September, even before this attendance policy came forward, because students anticipated or thought it was already in place. So I really do think we have done a good job with this, and we have done that because we have included teachers from the system, parents, a guidance counsellor, to make sure we have the best-informed decision making possible, so this is something I am actually very proud of.
We will be reviewing this, so over the course of the next year if people have any opinions they want share with the department or the council on this attendance policy, we will be taking all that information in. We want to get this right. We want to make sure we are doing our very best for our students. At the end of the year, we will review all the information that has come in that will inform how we move forward with the policy itself.
MR. DUNN: I am going to move on to another policy. Of course it is the discipline policy that we have in our schools across the province. My question will be in a minute to the minister is on where the department is heading with discipline policies, and certainly I am a believer that discipline policies have to have a lot of teeth in them. I felt towards the latter part of my career and since then, there has been an erosion of discipline in the schools, to the point where it was very difficult for the ones in charge to administer it because of perhaps sometimes flack that they would receive from higher ups. It could be the family of schools’ supervisor, it could be someone from the school board. There seemed to be a lot of interference, but it’s something that I think students need, students want - again, certainly an erosion throughout the years. I just want to check to see where the department is headed in that.
MR. CHURCHILL: One more thought on the attendance policy because I know there is some confusion out there amongst parents, in terms of believing that their children are going to lose credits for not being in school for legitimate reasons. I want to assure them that that’s not going to be the case. There is flexibility in this policy for teachers to make those decisions, so if a student is out for reasons outside of their control or to pursue extra curricular activities that are valuable to their life experience and life education, there is room to allow for that to happen. All we do is ask that those students and parents provide an educational plan with the teacher, to make sure that the educational needs are being met. I just want to clarify that for anybody at home who is watching, so they know that this is not about being punitive on students for being out of school for legitimate reasons. We just need to make that very clear.
In terms of discipline, we do have a code of conduct in the province. This is one of the subject matters that the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions will be focused on as well, as they move forward with their important work. Also, when it comes to student behaviour, this is an important question for the Commission on Inclusive Education as well. They will be specifically looking at the wide range of student behaviour and how we can best build a system to support students and handle situations that involve behaviour.
I anticipate some very good recommendations to come forward from both the council and the Commission on Inclusive Education in this regard because, of course, it is a priority for us. We want to have safe, healthy, productive learning environments for our children and, of course, discipline is a big part of that.
MR. DUNN: I can remember as far back as probably 1995-1996, where we had a policy within our high school where the students were losing credits. It was a tough one to have a student in front of you after many, many interventions and calls to parents and so on, to let them know that they were not going to get a high school credit and sometimes having to repeat a year to get that credit. However, we certainly need a strict attendance policy to help students attending school and of course learning the curriculum.
The next question, minister - just a quick comment about new school construction. I’m not sure you will be able to answer this here but I’m going to go to CCRSB and zero in on just one little area, and it’s the Town of Trenton. I think it might be one of the priorities, perhaps, for the school board.
In the Town of Trenton we have two schools. One is an elementary school, P-4, and the other school is a school with Grade 5 to Grade 12, where I spent a lot of hours. Those schools are in pretty bad shape. You walk into it - I can remember in my last few years it was like Noah’s Ark with all the leaks in the building, if the wind was blowing the right way and it was raining and so on. The gym itself has reached a point where you can’t even play basketball sports in it, it is deplorable and so on.
I know there are lots of schools across the province. We can’t construct new schools in every area, but I’m just wondering where the department is with regard to new school construction, in particular in that area.
MR. CHURCHILL: The member is correct, the school board has identified those sites as priorities for that school board. There are a lot of priorities that have come forward from school boards across the province. I’ll be frank, we do not have the financial capacity to move on every single one of those projects year to year. There are a lot of capital pressures on the system. These are extremely expensive - hundreds of millions of dollars are involved in these capital projects for maintenance, for builds.
What we try to do is find a balanced approach from region to region to identify the top problematic issues and to move forward in a way that our finances allow us to. So those projects have been submitted as priorities from the board. They will receive full consideration by the Department of Education and TIR, as we assess the capital needs across the province. We are undergoing that process as we speak and once our final capital plan is finalized, we will be reporting that to the boards and to the public.
MR. DUNN: Mr. Chairman, the SchoolsPlus program that we have across the province - and I’m a big supporter of the SchoolsPlus program - I would like to ask the minister if it was possible, going forward, that he might be able to somehow review that program? I was speaking to someone here just recently in the province and their opinion in their school about the SchoolsPlus program, was that it really wasn’t working, it was sort of like a waste of time. That really surprised me because I thought the SchoolsPlus program was working great and I’m sure it is, in most cases or all cases.
This person’s opinion was such that some people were just going through the motions. I know in some schools where a lot of students are having mental health issues and sometimes there’s a caseload for someone coming in and people who want to get on the caseload can’t, they are deferred to maybe a local hospital or something to get some assistance and help.
I guess going back to my question, I’d perhaps like somehow, if the department could check in on these SchoolsPlus programs, just to see how effective they are.
MR. CHURCHILL: If there are any concerns with the SchoolsPlus program, I would like to know about those specific concerns, because the feedback we have received has been fairly positive on the SchoolsPlus program. We are now servicing 283 schools through 31 hub sites. SchoolsPlus is about ensuring that students can access whatever the supports are that they need. If they are dealing with what some would term a minor case of depression or anxiety, mental health clinicians in the schools can assist them with that. If there is a greater mental health crisis that needs immediate care, we also connect them with the appropriate supports in the system, outside of the education system, with the Health and Wellness Department.
We need the system to be working properly and again, I’m not familiar with any specific concerns that have come forward to date. If that member does have any, we do need to know what they are so we can properly address them, because we’re also planning on expanding this. There are going to be up to 51 mental health clinicians in our system as a result of the SchoolsPlus program. We’ll have a site in every single school in the province.
As we move forward with expansion, we need to learn from the experience that we’re having right now. Again, I’m only familiar with positive feedback that has come in so far, but if there are concerns or constructive feedback that we need to enhance that program to make sure it’s working to it’s optimal ability. That is information we do need to have. I would encourage the member to provide me with those specifics. We don’t have to do it here on the record, we can do that outside the Chamber and I will commit time to doing that with the member.
MR. DUNN: The next question is revolving around a Grade 10 course that is in our curriculum on developing life skills. In a continuous changing environment, securing life skills is a critical part of being able to meet the challenges of everyday life. Young students often lack life skills, such as the ability to deal with stress and frustration. Talking with a few guidance counsellors, they feel that the Grade 10 career development course, which covers a lot of these things - often some students are coming out of high school and they don’t know things like the value of money, using credit cards, associating debt with credit cards, options for loans, pursuing a higher education, creating a financial budget, just basic daily bills in a home or a vehicle, retirement savings, insurance, RRSPs, Canada Savings Bonds. Just things like that.
I think I’m right in saying that the Grade 10 career development course was compulsory at one time. It is not now. It is optional, just an elective. So if I am a Grade 10 student, I can take the course or I can go on and take another elective. I’m wondering if, again, listening to guidance counsellors who continue to tell me of the difficulty that arises when assisting students because they just often lack these basic skills, would the department perhaps going forward - they might make this course compulsory?
MR. CHURCHILL: Of course, life skills are critical and we want to make sure that our education system is providing our students with viable life skills. I do want to highlight that in terms of financial literacy, which was a focus of the member’s comments - because of investments we made, because of work we’re doing with Junior Achievement of Nova Scotia on a Dollars with Sense program that’s being implemented in Grade 9, and a focus on financial literacy and the great work of our teachers in this regard - we are actually increasing financial literacy for our students in the province. We are now ranking higher internationally for financial literacy outcomes and nationally, as well. So in terms of what we’re doing on financial literacy, there’s a good news story there.
Of course, if we have any information that comes in to help us enhance that programming from subject-matter experts or community members or teachers or anybody, we’re going to take that information in to make sure we’re doing our very best. This is an area where I wish I had more support when I was growing up in the education system, because I didn’t realize I’d have a job that I have to fight every three or four years to keep. I thought I would have more career stability but, alas, here we are. I think we do need to recognize the great work our teachers are doing, the great partnerships we have with junior achievement, and the great outcomes we’re seeing with our kids on financial literacy. So, we’re doing a good job in that regard and let’s just keep doing better.
MR. DUNN: There’s also a Grade 10 course - I think it’s called Mathematics at Work 10 and there’s some life skills in that but I think it needs to be enhanced, and a career-development course certainly would help in that manner if it was compulsory.
Over the years, I don’t think there’s been a year where there hasn’t been this problem where students are coming into our schools who need to be tested and there’s always a waiting list due to the fact that the personnel with the expertise to test these children - in order to provide interventions going forward - were just not available. Sometime a psychologist is responsible for several schools and not able to fulfill the list of students in each individual school, and months and months would go on. Sometimes the year would be three-quarters over before many of the students would be tested. I’m wondering, where is the department as far as providing more expertise in our schools to have this testing done quicker and earlier?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of math, that has been one of two of our primary areas for investment when it comes to outcomes we’re trying to achieve for our students. Literacy and math have been two academic focuses of ours. We have hired 121 math mentors in the system and that also includes early intervention for math, and the cost for that has been a little over $9 million.
I think we’re starting to see the fruits of those investments as our math scores inch up in terms of national averages, but we do have a lot more work to do. This will continue to be an area of focus of ours, especially considering that a lot of the jobs our students are going to be graduating into require good math skills to enter into those various sectors. That’s why this needs to be a key focus of ours, so there are heavy investments going in. We have hired 121 new FTEs to support this work.
Literacy is also another area of academic focus of ours and we have hired 143 FTEs. That includes 106 for Reading Recovery. That is a really important program that the New Democratic Party did cut and we have brought back into place and we’re actually seeing our literacy scores now improving since the previous Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and our Premier committed to and executed on that commitment to bring Reading Recovery back into our system.
In terms of student psychologists - I believe that was a question the member asked - we do have an additional 20 FTEs in this year’s budget for either student psychologists or speech language pathologists. It will be up to the boards depending on the needs that they’re experiencing in their communities, on which of those positions they will hire. We do have budgets for additional supports in that area.
Also, because of the work-to-rule situation, there became a backlog of student psychological assessments - a major backlog that was becoming extremely problematic for those students, and not having those done was creating major challenges for our students in the system. So we’ve actually partnered with Mount St. Vincent to clear up that backlog. That is costing us approximately $1 million to do, but we have since cleared 300 backlog psychological assessments for our students. That is a great achievement that we have been able to accomplish because of the great partnership with the Mount and the experts that we have over there who have assisted us with this.
MR. DUNN: My last question is going to be on inclusion. Of course, I’m a fan of inclusion - I believe in it. I think the way to continue to improve inclusion is from the grassroots and teachers who are actually in the classroom.
I had a recent conversation with a teacher who had several students with learning difficulties in her classroom. However, they did not have any additional assistance. They didn’t have a TA or EA or any classroom support. I have found in the latter part of my career and beyond that, that we seem to be having more severe behavioral students in our schools, and often that EA who would, for the most part be working with five or six different people, would end up going one on one with a severe behavioral student. Therefore, as a result of that, the other five or six students who needed that assistance, were just not getting it. Again, the erosion and frustrations and stress within the classroom kept occurring.
I hope, through this council and through any other interventions, that we’ll continue looking at that. I think that’s the crux of the problem in our schools today, where we want to make the climate a better climate and make the people who are working in our schools feel better about achieving their outcomes and so on, that we continue to work very closely with the grassroots teachers who are working in these classrooms on a continuous basis. Comment from the minister.
MR. CHURCHILL: A very important question. There are actually more TAs in the system now than in previous years. That is a result of investments that we’ve made year over year for TAs and EAs, depending on what they’re called in each board. Also, boards have taken it upon themselves to increase the number of TAs from their own operational budgets.
So the fact that we’re hearing that parents and students are still not receiving the individual supports that they need, that tells us that there is a broader systemic challenge that we do need to go after, because we’re not going to be able to keep up, from a financial perspective, with the needs of those students on an individual basis with TAs. That’s what the current situation is telling me. So we have to change the system, to make sure it’s working better for everybody.
Looking at the system of inclusion as it has been implemented in Nova Scotia, is key to doing that. We all want our education system to be an inclusive one. We all want every single child who enters into our education system, to get the very best out of that system. We want to make sure that we as governments, as administrators, as boards and teachers, are doing our very best to give every student what they need to succeed academically and in life. And in a lot of ways, we are failing them because of the way the system has been - the model of inclusion has been - implemented in Nova Scotia.
So for the first time in 20 years, we have a government that actually has the courage to take this question on. It’s a very sensitive topic for a lot of people. For past governments, it has been a topic that was deemed taboo and no one was willing to touch it, but we’ve heard from teachers, we’ve heard from parents that it’s not working to the best of its ability. That’s nobody’s fault within the system. That’s no individual’s fault. It’s a systemic issue that we need to deal with.
I think we are approaching this in a meaningful way that’s going to yield transformative results for our students. We have incredible people looking at this for us, who are reaching out and consulting with parents, with teachers, with administrators, and with experts to make sure we figure out how to do this better, because it needs to be a priority. We’re going to do a better job with this. We’re committed to doing that.
I’m really proud that the past minister led the charge in this regard. It took a lot of courage to make sure we were all going to have this conversation so we could move forward and make improvements.
At the end of the day, we have to make sure that each of these students in the system is getting what they need. Right now, I think we can recognize that we’re not doing that to the best of our ability, but we’re committed to fixing it.
MR. DUNN: Again, I’m sure if we phoned every school in the province, they would say we need more EAs and TAs. That’s just the reality of our schools today, and I know we have budget constraints, and we can only do what we can do.
Perhaps my last comment before I turn it over to my colleague from Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage would be that I would like to see some more professional development for people who are working in our schools - not only the teachers. I feel that our educational assistants and TAs certainly need more professional development to cope with the types of students whom they are working with on a daily basis.
Having said that, Mr. Chairman, I’m going to turn things over to my colleague from Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: I’m going to be turning my questions to local constituency issues that we have discussed a little bit in the past. An article that was in the paper in July that was quoting me said that in April of 2013, the NDP government stopped all school reviews. At the time Stephen McNeil said the move was political . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order please. As much as I hate to interrupt members while they’re speaking, I’m going to start picking a little bit more on the appropriate way to address members in the House - not by their proper name but by their constituency or their department.
MS. ADAMS: I was quoting. All right, we’ll start over again.
In April of 2013, the NDP government stopped all school reviews. At the time the current Premier said the move was political and “an insincere attempt to clean up the mess this government created through its deep cuts to public education”
Then in October of 2014, when the Liberal Government was in power, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development introduced a new school review process, and the policy described how everything was supposed to happen. Then there was a long review outlook that was updated in April, 2017.
Then on July 7th, the current Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development wrote a letter to Dave Wright, the school board chairman for HRM. At that time, he stated, “Further to that commitment, I am writing today to direct you to immediately stop any school reviews currently underway that meet the above conditions . . .”
I just want to note the timing of this. The school review process that had been undertaken for the Cole Harbour and Auburn High Schools and all of the feeder schools was initiated more than a year and a half ago and was delayed at the request of school board representatives. It was initiated on September 14, 2016. It involved people from four different constituencies. This process followed the due course with enormous input by all of the people involved, including the chairs, Shannon Parsons and Corey Anderson. I want to acknowledge them and everyone else who worked on it.
The timing of the release of the letter stopping the school review process, came at eight o’clock in the morning on July 7th. Having met their requirements of meeting with the communities three separate times, with several hundred people at each meeting, the School Options Committee had submitted their report to the school boards. The school board’s response to that report was set to be released at noon on July 7th. We were going to meet, about 500 of us, the following Wednesday. So, a process that we had all been waiting for almost two years, was about to be released at noon and, at eight o’clock in the morning, the letter that was sent by the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to the Halifax Regional School Board was released and - was sent to him on July 5th - but released on July 7th.
So we have a number of questions, but my first to the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development is, number one, given his government’s response to the New Democratic Party stopping the school review process, why did they do the very same thing, and why did they do it the morning of the day that the school board’s report to the SOC submission happened, on that same day?
MR. CHURCHILL: The contexts are very different. I was in Opposition when the New Democratic Party was making a lot of negative decisions in terms of our education system. They cut teaching positions. They had cut $65 million out of the classroom, and people forget because we had a tempestuous period with the sector as well. But before our government, there was a lot of political pressure being put on the New Democratic Party and their government, on the education system. There was a lot of unrest. One of those areas of unrest was around school closures. So as the Premier had mentioned, there was a political decision made at the time to pause or to stop all school reviews across the province, every single one of them, even those that entailed needed facility replacement. So, this was done to calm down a few key ridings that were, where the MLAs were getting a lot of local pressure on school closures.
In this particular case, we made this commitment in the campaign. The commitment was made because there is additional information that’s needed before school boards move forward with these decisions that impact space. I mean, the member can appreciate that when we invest capital dollars in retrofits and new builds, we have to have all the best information possible in order to do that. We don’t want to make uninformed decisions. This will not be a prolonged pause. You know, this is going to be a short-term pause relatively speaking, that will allow us to better understand the impact of pre-Primary sites we are going to have, in the HRM area in particular.
So as school boards move forward with these decisions, that’s critical information to have because it’s going to impact space and it’s going to impact classes. If schools are reconfiguring where their student body is going to be located, the member can understand that is needed critical information, because every class in our system does matter. This is a pause in order to do that, to provide them with critical information that’s needed for these decisions. This is not in response to localized pressure. In fact, the pressure will likely come from the other side, from volunteers who think that their work was for not. I want to assure them that that’s not the case.
The information will be accumulative, so all the data that’s been collected by the School Options Committee will inform the decision-making moving forward. But we also need to know how pre-Primary is going to impact these classrooms and these spaces in our schools. I will note that, unlike the New Democratic Party decision to halt all reviews universally, this is only impacting reviews that don’t entail facility replacement. For the areas that need facility replacement, where they need new schools, we’re not going to halt that. We want our kids to have the best facilities possible. So those projects will be moving forward. This is just about understanding how pre-Primary is going to impact reconfiguration and, of course, we’re undergoing that board administrative review too, which can impact the decision-making process in this, which we recognize as well.
There are two key things there. This was a commitment we made to Nova Scotians that we’re following through on. I know it was reported that the HRM was shocked about this but, in fact, in speaking with the chairman of the board, he informed me that, no, they did know this was coming. He wasn’t happy about it, but they did expect this because it was a campaign commitment that we made and that we have followed through on.
I’ll let the member know that we plan on following through on every single campaign commitment that we made to Nova Scotians. We had a platform that was well thought out, that was budgeted, that is not going to lead our province into greater levels of debt, that allows us to find appropriate investment dollars for key programs and services for Nova Scotians. We believe we’re going to accomplish every single platform commitment that we have laid out for Nova Scotians and this was one of those.
MS. ADAMS: I just want to express to everyone here that aside from doctor issues, this issue was the thing I talked about most and the honourable member for Cole Harbour-Portland Valley knows that going door-to-door, this was what everyone was talking about.
I just want to make a couple of comments to what was just said. He said he didn’t want to make uninformed decisions. Of course one of those informed decisions - a December 7th article about what the Nova Scotia Auditor General said about the building of the school in Eastern Passage, because he released a report of an audit where he said that the decision to build an Eastern Passage high school was not recommended, based on his analysis. He said the response he got from the community - he had received more emails on that than any single audit ever in the history of him doing audits. It isn’t a little thing. It’s a very, very big thing for my community.
The other thing is that he just referenced Dave Wright, the chairman of the Halifax Regional School Board not being surprised, but I have an article here that was in the July 10th Global News. It says, “But the decision came as a surprise to many in the education community.” It came as a complete surprise to everyone. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t shocked, dismayed. I must admit the fact that we found out about it on Facebook, by a posting that Nancy Jakeman made. It didn’t come from the minister, which I would have preferred, or from the school board. It came from the school board rep on a Facebook posting.
The statement here in Global News says that Dave Wright, the chairman of the HRSB and the man to whom Churchill’s letter was addressed, that he was “surprised by the timing” of the announcement. It’s unfortunate that the work that this community put into it is paused at this point. Of course, the rest of the statement says that hopefully we can work around this. So clearly that’s what the community wants.
Mr. Chairman, my question to the minister is that on the Liberals’ website, dated May 13th, which is in the middle of the election, so, well before the letter he sent out July 5th, it says this is a press release or something on their Liberal.ns.ca website on or about May 13th: “Liberals review school boards, pause school closures.” It says, “Therefore, until the school board review happens, a Liberal government will immediately pause all school review processes that do not involve facility replacement.”
The election was May 30th, so I’m wondering why it took the minister until July 5th and why the school board found out about it on July 7th, the very day that the school board’s response to the SOC report was supposed to come out.
MR. CHURCHILL: A couple of things in relation to the school in Eastern Passage. That was a decision made by the previous government, the NDP. That was not a decision that was initiated by this government. So if the member does have some questions on the Auditor General’s comments on that, she should probably refer them to members of that previous government, not the current minister.
In terms of Dave Wright, as I actually mentioned in my previous statements, he was reported in the media as saying he was shocked and surprised. I had a follow-up conversation with him on the phone in which he suggested to me that he was misquoted. I would encourage the member to have that conversation with Dave as well, so he can clarify his comments to me.
I think Dave has offered to have an open-door policy with myself, in terms of discussing any issues of importance to that school board community and I know he would have the same role when it comes to the MLA that represents one of the areas within his jurisdiction. Don’t take my word for it but have a chat with the gentleman himself.
As the member noted, earlier in the summer and during the campaign, we told everybody that this pause was going to take place. It was communicated publicly, it was communicated through the press and we did follow-up with a letter to enforce that commitment and let them know that that was indeed how we were moving forward.
As she mentioned, the public was well aware of these things before the date that letter was issued, based on the information that she mentioned here.
MS. ADAMS: If I have misquoted Dave, then I apologize. However, my understanding from speaking with school board reps and everybody else that I’ve spoken with, then he may have been the only one who wasn’t surprised. The timing of it will remain suspect in the eyes of most of the people whom I’ve talked to because it’s just too much of a coincidence that it came out four hours before that was released.
With the time that I have remaining, I want to talk about a couple of other things that are concerning to the community. Because Cole Harbour High School and Auburn High School offer different programs, the students from Eastern Passage currently have the full menu option of the IB program and the tech trades. The most talked about thing for the constituents in Eastern Passage was, what curriculum are we going to have? Is IB going to be there - because there are an awful lot of our Eastern Passage kids going to Cole Harbour High who are currently taking IB. If they’ve started now and the school opens and it’s not offered, what happens to them?
I probably asked that question 20 times. So maybe before I go any further, I’m going to ask the minister, are the kids from Eastern Passage going to continue to have access to the IB program that they’ve started?
MR. CHURCHILL: Programming decisions such as those happen at the board level. That is where the jurisdiction for that decision-making happens, so I’d encourage the member to have those conversations with the board.
MS. ADAMS: Unfortunately, the school board has their hands tied because the school review process has been put on hold. So nobody knows whether Cole Harbour High School is going to be shut down or not. They don’t know whether Auburn is going to be shut down. They don’t know whether the School Options Committee’s recommendation that both be kept open is a viable option or whether the school board will ratify it.
No one will tell us what the curriculum is for a school that’s supposed to open in September 2018. What we have are parents not sure whether to move. We have teachers who have already left Cole Harbour High to go to other schools because they were in anticipation of it being shut down. That’s not our problem, but that was their decision.
I sit on the Cole Harbour Business Association along with the member for Cole Harbour-Portland Valley, and there are people there whose businesses they’re not sure whether they’re still going to want to be there, depending on which school gets closed.
The other issue is not just about the IB. It’s about the tech trades, because it’s our understanding with the school that’s being built in Eastern Passage that there will be no tech trades, there will be no IB. Right now, every child in Eastern Passage, Cow Bay - that whole catchment area got those programs, including my kids when they went there. They have a full menu option.
What parents want to know come September is, if they’re not building any tech trade capacity in the school as we speak, then what happens to the tech trade kids who are in there now who now get transferred to Eastern Passage, because we don’t know whether there is going to be any room to shift over to Cole Harbour High if the decision is made to shut down Cole Harbour High or Auburn High.
Everyone in both communities wants to know what’s going on. Can the minister tell us now, when will we know which curriculum options are available to parents so, if they want to indeed move, they have the time to sell their house and move constituencies?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the specific programming questions that the member has, the minister and the department is not able to answer those because those are not decisions that we make in the department. Those are decisions that are made at the local level with our school boards. They have jurisdiction over programming and its implementation in our schools.
I want to recognize that there are some questions over this temporary pause, but that’s all this is - it’s a temporary pause so that critical information can be gathered that will have an impact on allocation of space and where we put our students. I just want to inform the community, there’s a transformative thing happening in our education system with pre-Primary. We’re bringing in a new, free, universal pre-Primary program that I think is going to be critical to the success of our kids, particularly those who are most vulnerable among them. This will have an impact on space. Before we make any long-term decisions that involve space in classrooms in our schools, we do need to have this critical piece of information. This is essential information.
We don’t want to make bad decisions because we wanted to rush this. We want to make sure we make good decisions that are well-informed, so that is how we’ll be moving forward. All of these things we’re committed to in our platform. They were expressed publicly to everybody. Anyone who took an interest in the platform or campaign commitments has had access to that information because it’s public information, including that member.
MS. ADAMS: I appreciate that. The introduction of pre-Primary and the discussions that have to go around inclusion are going to impact everything that happens across all schools across the province. I’m not one to want to rush to judgement as to what we should or need to do, but these particular constituents have been waiting a long time because we’ve been talking about the potential school review process, because Eastern Passage already went through the process the year before and now everything that they went through for their elementary and junior high, they all feel as well that well, we put a lot of work into that and now with pre-Primary, we’re going to have to go through all that, over again.
The minister made a comment about asking the previous government about the decision to award the high school in Eastern Passage, which they did. That was controversial and it happened and it was against the school board’s recommendations. However, the current Liberal Government had the option - as suggested by the Auditor General - to stop the process and you didn’t. So you ratified and continued on with the school. I’m not suggesting whether you should have or shouldn’t have, but one government introduced it and approved it and a second government had the option of stopping it and didn’t, so that was their choice. That leads all the people in my constituency, from Woodside all the way around to Cole Harbour, wondering what is happening next.
I can’t ask the school board about the curriculum because they are not answering the question. If you ask the school board what curriculum is going on at Eastern Passage High School, they will not answer that question, at least the times that I’ve spoken with the school board myself. It would be good if somebody is able to tell us, will there be IB and will there be tech trades? It’s quite a difference to everybody in the communities if they do.
Just as a point of reference, Auburn has the automotive program, Cole Harbour underwent $13 million in renovations. There are rumours circulating throughout the campaign that they were going to sell - somebody was going to sell it to the Nova Scotia Community College. That was brought up a few times by a couple of people.
I had no answer to it because I’m like, I don’t know what’s happening. It’s the most passionate thing, besides doctors, that I’ve ever had. I noticed another member, he’s shaking his head so I’m assuming that that’s not on the table, but we don’t know and so we’re just concerned.
I do have a couple of other questions that I heard on the doorsteps. There were a couple of things that have come up particularly in my constituency about autism - kids with autism getting diagnosed and the delay in getting diagnosed. There were two specific groups; there were those in the military who get posted in for a few years and then are posted out. So we have a situation with them where they are posted in, they were on a wait-list somewhere else where they lived to see somebody to get the diagnosis and then, now they go back to being at the bottom of the list.
I’m just wondering if the minister could comment on whether there is some recognition even of the special circumstances for wait-lists for those in the military. We’ve had a couple of compassionate postings where people had to be moved out of here, to another province where they could get access to the kind of care - not necessarily autism care. I want to raise it as an issue because it’s big, because several of them whom I met with at an autism support group, each spent $1,200 to $1,500 to get private assessments done.
MR. CHURCHILL: Just to tackle a few of those questions. If the member is having a difficult time getting programming information from the board or if the board is not responding to her, the department is happy to reach out on her behalf to see if we can acquire that information for you. We might have a little more success.
In terms of capital planning, we made it very clear in the 2013 election that - and this was to calm concerns. Obviously, when elections happen and there’s a change of government, there can be an impact on a number of different projects that have been committed to, and that creates concern and anxiety for the communities in which those projects are happening. We did make a commitment to follow through on the capital commitments that the government before us had made, in order to assure those communities that there would be no changes to them, because they had expected them.
So that’s right, we did commit to following through on that decision, but in terms of the initial decision-making, that did happen with the previous government. We felt it was important to honour all capital commitments that that government made so that communities weren’t losing out on projects that they deemed critical because there was a change in government.
In terms of EIBI supports, that is a program that is provided through the Health and Wellness Department. I don’t remember the specifics of the member’s question. (Interruptions) Okay. That’s a question that we can pass on to the Department of Health and Wellness, and they will be able to help us answer that.
In terms of pre-Primary, there is also a new opportunity for early screening to identify many special needs. This is one of the things that the literature tells us is pretty important, so that we can better prepare for all students as they enter into the education system. I think this will help us identify issues earlier and plan better for each individual student as they enter the academic learning environment and ensure that we’re doing our very best to give them what they need.
This is a new tool in the arsenal to help all of our children. I really do believe that, and am very excited to move forward with that program. I think it’ll help.
On the EIBI question, we will make sure that those questions are passed on to the Department of Health and Wellness.
MS. ADAMS: Thank you. I guess the last question I have is, there were some statements in some of the documents that I had here - I can’t quite find it - that the pause on the school-review process was set to go until about December, and then it will be lifted around January. I’m just wondering if that timeline still holds true,
MR. CHURCHILL: That is a timeline that we are hoping to be able to move on. We are bringing in an independent consultant to help us with the administration review. I can’t assume at this point what her recommendations will be. I don’t know if she will recommend more time to complete more work. At this point, our hope is that it will be conducted in the timely manner that we’ve outlined.
We know that there are pressures on the community, and we know that they want answers in terms of how the school board’s moving forward. We want to make sure that that process is fully informed with data that we believe to be critical in terms of decisions that involve space and where we put our students in our schools.
Time will tell, but right now we do anticipate that that’s the timeline that we’re going to be operating on.
MS. ADAMS: I would just like to thank the minister for those answers. I’ll be able to share those with my community. Thank you.
MR. CHURCHILL: I’d like to say you’re welcome, and thank you for the questions.
MR. SPEAKER: Order, please. The time for the PC caucus has expired. We are going to take a brief pause.
[12:18 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[12:23 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I will now call the committee back to order.
The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
MS. LISA ROBERTS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I’m not sure if the minister can remember exactly my question or my comment before my time elapsed. I was simply expressing that in Halifax Needham where we have a relatively limited geography, and demand for school buildings from both the CSAP which will serve a much larger geography including Halifax Atlantic, Halifax Armdale, and so forth, and a demand for a new North End junior high coming out of the school review process, which is suspended.
It’s somewhat problematic or it’s seen as problematic at the level of the community that we’re not able to make decisions that hold all of that information currently in account, especially as the Bloomfield property is basically on the block right now. It’s in play right now. I’d appreciate just hearing from the minister that he and the department are holding all of that in their minds.
MR. CHURCHILL: Recognizing the pressures that are on the HRSB and CSAP that impact capital projects in the capitol region, we recognize that capacity is an issue and moving forward with any decisions on school builds to address those pressures, we have to make sure the schools are the right size. We have to do proper assessments on sites to make sure that these long-term projects that we’re investing limited resources in, are going to accommodate the needs of those communities. So that information is absolutely critical and part of the process that informs our decision making.
MS. ROBERTS: I found it quite interesting to listen to my colleague for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage with the experience there of multiple consequences falling out from one capital decision and how many questions are left unanswered even as a school is about to open. I know that my colleague from Halifax Atlantic is here, and I know that he is rightfully very proud at having secured capital investment for his district.
I do understand that a number of processes that are normally undergone before a capital investment decision is made, were short-cut/short-circuited in that process - meaning that there wasn’t full information about exactly what size of school was needed, exactly where the location should be and that there have been a number of challenges moving to shovels on the ground as a result of that.
I would really like to hear a full commitment from the minister to commit to the recommendations put forward by the Auditor General in his report in 2016. I was not part of the NDP Government that made some decisions that did not follow those recommendations, but the recommendations came after those decisions were made. I certainly hope that we can learn from experience and improve government for Nova Scotia because, as we often hear from the opposite side of the House, resources are limited. So better decisions are better decisions.
MR. CHURCHILL: A distinct difference between the decision on J.L. Ilsley and Eastern Passage is that that was a priority that was brought forward by the board for J.L. Ilsley. That was a capital priority that was issued to us. We have the literature to substantiate that if the member is interested in seeing it. The difference with Eastern Passage was, that was not part of the capital priorities that were presented to the NDP Government by the board. So there is a distinct difference there.
In terms of the Auditor General’s recommendation to have longer-term capital planning in place so that communities can be assured years out instead of year to year, so that their capital needs will be addressed for their schools, we are taking that recommendation into full consideration.
The challenge of course is that you do not want to commit government to long-term costly decisions that the public purse won’t allow you to follow through on. So we’re in the process of figuring out the best way to tackle that issue, while ensuring fiscal responsibility. Not tying future governments’ hands - of any political stripe - to decisions, but also doing our very best to make sure we can provide some long-term projects on where the capital dollars will go.
At face value, that is a very good recommendation and it makes a lot of sense and we want to do that, but we want to make sure we’re going to have the money to pay for those things essentially. Those are conversations that we’re having right now as we work on the current capital plan.
MS. ROBERTS: Thank you for that answer. Just maybe succinctly, what conversation is happening right now between the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development - other than the assessment of the Bloomfield site with TIR Is there other communication also happening between the province and the municipality at the moment?
MR. CHURCHILL: The conversations with the department and HRM right now are specific to that. That is in response to the motion that was passed at council, and because we know that there are capital pressures in the capital region. So those conversations are underway right now, with in mind, making sure that we understand what the enrolment needs are going to be from HRSB’s standpoint, what the enrolment needs are going to be from the CSAP, and ensuring that we identify sites that will be sufficient to accommodate those needs.
Those are the conversations that we’re having right now and, yes, that is specific to the Bloomfield site at the moment, but we do have to have the broader site selection process happen before there’s a final decision made as well. I want to make that clear.
In terms of capital priorities from the boards, they have already submitted all their capital priorities. We have a very big list of capital priorities. I would not be being honest with the Assembly if I said that we would be able to accommodate all of those based on, you know, our financial capacity. So, we’re working to identify the areas of greatest need and move forward in a thoughtful way that will address as many of those need as possible financially.
MS. ROBERTS: Thank you. I would like to ask a question related to inclusion and support for special needs students. I had a very specific complaint come forward to me from a parent of a 17-year-old student who needs to have quite considerable support in the school system and is not included in other classrooms. He’s supported in a separate learning centre, but the teachers and the other staff who typically work with him, do not work with him during exam periods, because they are used to supervise exams.
So effectively, that parent loses her access to school for her son during exam periods, which would be maybe two weeks out of the year, and I’m wondering if that is in accordance with departmental policy. Is that the sort of thing that is being looked at in terms of the inclusion model, because it does create some hardship?
MR. CHURCHILL: I might have heard of this specific issue. I can say, generally speaking, we recognize the incredible amount of pressure that’s being put on the system, that’s being put on TAs, on our teachers, because of the model of inclusion that we have implemented in the province. We are committed to properly addressing that and our goal is to have some changes that will be transformative for the system and better allocated resources to accommodate the needs of what is a very diverse student body.
In relation to this specific issue, I’m happy to have a conversation with the member on it and see if there is an avenue for the department to engage the school board in a conversation about it. I don’t know the specifics and I can’t speak on behalf of the board on how those resources are allocated but I’m very happy to look into that if that is of interest to the member.
You know, really, everybody recognizes this. There is broad-based consensus now that the model of inclusion that we’ve implemented while well intended - well intended because it was designed to make sure everybody was involved in the system and that people weren’t feeling disenfranchised or stigmatized in the system. I think we have to recognize the good intention of this, but we have to recognize practically the way it’s been implemented in our classrooms has created a whole host of challenges for teachers. They are being expected to involve themselves with matters of personal health with students that they do not necessarily have the training for and, perhaps, they shouldn’t be expected to take those things on. Their classrooms are much more complex, and that creates frustrations as well, I’m sure, and challenges for them.
We know we’ve heard from students who do have special needs, and families of students with special needs, who have continuously brought to our attention that the supports are not sufficient for what they believe their children need and the system does have a very difficult time keeping up with those needs, the way it’s currently modeled.
So we’ve got to change it. We’ve got to change the system to improve it for all students and we know we can do better with this. We’ve got, I think, the right minds geared toward this question for us who are consulting people on the ground - communities, parents, students, teachers - so that we can move forward in a way that is going to be hopefully based on common sense and achieve the practical solutions that we need to have in the system.
Part of that is funding as well. Right now, school boards are based on a funding model that is dependent entirely on enrolment. That does not recognize the specific needs of each of those boards or the needs of their students. We have ensured in each budget that supports for special needs have not been impacted negatively because of enrolment. We have put additional dollars in the budget to make sure that there’s no drop in supports for students with special needs. We have increased the number of TAs in the system, primarily because boards have recognized the need to have more, and they have funded them. We have increased mental health clinicians and student psychologists, and we are still in a situation where parents are coming to us and saying, we’re not getting what we need from the system.
That is not acceptable. We have got to do better. I believe wholescale systemic change is what is going to be required for that.
MS. ROBERTS: Thank you very much. I’m going to pass the floor to my colleague from Dartmouth South.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: Hello again to the minister and staff. Thank you again to the staff for being here. I don’t know if you caught it, but my colleague for Halifax Needham devoted her member’s statement today on thankfulness for Thanksgiving to all the staff who have spent long hours here. I will reiterate that. (Applause)
Just to follow up on inclusion, which is an issue that has been in front of us for a really long time. IUt is now being studied by this Commission on Inclusive Education. We talked about it yesterday. We’re putting a lot of eggs in the basket of the findings of that commission and how we will implement those findings. I think what I heard yesterday was that we have no specific budget commitments to date for implementing that work. Is that correct?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the budgetary timelines, the commission’s final report is due in March, and fiscal year end for the province is March. We think the timing is actually good because that will help inform the budget for the next year. The report will actually coincide with fiscal year end. We do not have anything budgeted this year to implement the recommendations of the commission, because the commission’s recommendations will be coming out at the end of this fiscal year. But in moving forward with next year’s budget, those recommendations will inform, in large part, where our investment dollars are going to go.
MS. CHENDER: I just want to get clear. The fiscal year end is March 31st, and the report comes out March 31st with recommendations. Presumably, we’ll be back in this Chamber with another budget not too long after that. Is that the normal course of events? Would there be time in that compressed timeline to actually input that information into the budget in a meaningful way?
MR. CHURCHILL: That’s absolutely the intention. Our commitment to this process has been made very clear, I think. Our commitment to the education system has been made very clear year after year, with increased dollars of investment. That pattern will continue. We are going to take the recommendations, and I believe we’re going to have a really good blueprint from the Commission on Inclusive Education, and that will really help inform where our investment dollars go. We’re going to move quickly and ambitiously to accomplish the objectives that they set out for us to the best of our ability.
I very much look forward to having these recommendations come forward and to engaging in the budgetary process as we always do. I think we’re going to have some really positive things happen over the course of the next number of years in relation to our education system and our supports for students.
MS. CHENDER: Just to tie that one up, if in fact there is time to discuss with the Finance and Treasury Board Minister, get it into the budget, and get that budget passed in the compressed time between when those recommendations will likely be made and when that next budget will come before this House - at that point, we would be looking at September 2018, I’m assuming, as the earliest point at which our students could benefit from those recommendations. Is that correct?
MR. CHURCHILL: That is the commitment that the government has made. I will note that we are still committed to fiduciary responsibility, so we will not make any decisions that jeopardize the financial stability of the province or that add to our already ballooning debt. But if past behavior can be considered, despite our financial challenges, this government has year over year increased investments in education. It has increased investments for students with special needs, for mental heath clinicians.
This is a party that has always, since taking office in 2013, prioritized educational spending. That pattern of behavior will continue. So, we are going to take the recommendations as they come forward, and to the best of our financial ability, we are going to move forward in implementing those recommendations, but we will not act in a way that jeopardizes the financial integrity of the province.
MS. CHENDER: I have to confess, just given the differences of opinion across this aisle, that I struggle a little bit with this continued commitment to education, given the teachers’ debacle. But I will take you at your word that you were doing all that in good faith. What I am hearing in those last comments is that, in fact, the finding of the Commission on Inclusion might not, in fact, be implemented if they cost too much. Is that correct?
MR. CHURCHILL: Listen, to address the member’s first comment, we had a difficult labour dispute. There is nobody who is denying that. That was a challenge. We brought forward a wage package and changes to the long-service award that we did think were fair and that we thought were necessary in order to achieve some fiscal health in this province. I think it is important to have perspective on why those decisions were made. I also think it is important to separate the labour process from the classroom process as well, because that did get entangled, and I think that created a challenge for both the union and the government to find a resolution for the membership, because the expectation was that the labour contract would fix all the issues in the classroom. But in fact, how do you achieve that with a labour contract which is basically just an employee contract.
So I think there was a challenge there for both sides to accommodate for the expectations of the membership. I do think, moving forward it is important to distinguish those things as being separate, because I really truly believe that they are. So, yes, on the labour side we had a tough situation but on the classroom side and the investments side, we have been moving forward every single year with more and more investments, while maintaining financial health and sensibility in the province. I do think it is important to recognize that.
The reason why that is important, because, you know, I have heard the Leader of the Official Opposition suggest this is an obsession, that balanced books are an obsession of this government. I do want to take a moment to talk about that, because this is not an obsession of and to itself. You know, the end is not the balanced books. The end is having a province that can afford to deliver programs and services to Nova Scotians for the long run, to make sure that our ability to do that is sustainable. When you have a debt that is at $15 billion, a debt that you are paying the interest on to the tune of $850 million a year - that is twice the budget of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. Think about that, infrastructure and roads. The debt servicing, the interest we are paying on that debt costs double what that whole department’s budget is.
That creates major challenges in terms of delivering on services and programs for people of this province. It impacts our ability to invest in health and front-line health care. It impacts our ability to invest in kids and education. It impacts our ability to transform the community services department. This is serious.
The NDP need to be made very clear that the end goal is not balanced budgets. Balanced budgets are a tool to make sure that we are able to provide services and programs that Nova Scotians need for the long run, without jeopardizing the future generations who will inherit the cost of our decisions.
We have inherited the cost of the decisions of all past governments, and those costs have accumulated to an almost insurmountable situation. Right, we have to be responsible to future generations. We have to think long-term. The easiest thing that any government can do, particularly during a labour negotiation, is to say yes. That is easy. My God, our lives would have been so easy for the last four years, had we just been able to say yes.
It is not just because we don’t want to say yes to these folks. These are valued employees in our system whom we need to execute programs and service delivery for Nova Scotians. But when 52 cents of every dollar that is collected in taxes goes out to pay the collective agreements, you have the ballooning debt with an interest payment that is extremely problematic, from a financial standpoint. Sometimes you do have to say no, but that’s not because we’re obsessed with balanced budgets. It’s because we feel a sense of duty and responsibility to Nova Scotians currently and for future generations of Nova Scotians, to make decisions that are in their best interests.
Too often we all get accused of this when we’re on this side of the House. Governments plan four years out to get re-elected, we invest our dollars to get re-elected, four years out, and you know what? Yes, that has worked for governments and we’ve all been guilty of that, every single Party in this House. You see why governments do that - because it’s a lot harder to think long-term, it creates bigger questions that you have to answer internally with where you spend your money. It does create moments of conflict when people are looking for dollars that you don’t have to invest in what they’re looking for.
This is the broader perspective that I think all Parties need to have here because we do have to have in our decision-making process a sense of duty, not just for current Nova Scotians but for the next generation - my daughter, my grandkids, the great grandkids of every member in this House, we have a responsibility to them. I want to put that into perspective because I want the Leader of the Official Opposition to know that this is not a singular obsession.
I would argue that the NDP has a singular obsession with labour peace and that they will pay for it at any cost. I watched that happen in Opposition when the Leader was a member of the NDP Government and voted for every single budget that did give very generous wage packages, which everybody deserved, but how did we pay for that? We cut money out of education, we cut money from daycare, we raised taxes on every single Nova Scotian, we cut the ferry service in Yarmouth that was a critical economic link, we froze payments to those in the greatest financial need in our province, because at the end of the day we all have to pay the same bill here.
We have had to make difficult decisions, but we truly, fundamentally believe that we’ve done that in the best interests of Nova Scotians now and Nova Scotians who will be inhabiting this province in the future.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, with respect, I don’t remember mentioning balanced budgets in my question. My question was about priorities, when we’re spending a huge amount of money on a very ambitious pre-Primary program that, to the rest of us, basically came out of thin air.
My question now is, we have a Commission on Inclusion, we’ve all agreed that its work is important. We’ve all agreed that we have deep respect for the experts doing that work. I’m asking, will this government commit to allocating the resources from wherever, in whatever way they think is fit, to implement the results of that commission?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, the answer is yes. But I don’t want the member to think there’s going to be an unlimited pot of money here either. I do not know what these recommendations are going to be or what the costs are. We have to look at those when they come forward, thoughtfully, and move forward to the best of our financial ability to do that.
I think the member is asking me to commit to a sum of money that currently we don’t know what it’s going to be. I can’t do that until we see what the recommendations are. Our intention is to do what we have continued to do year after year. That is, prioritize education investments as we have year after year in our government. This is the pattern of behaviour that every Nova Scotian can see from us. We have invested in our classrooms, we have hired more teachers. We have more supports for students with special needs. We’re tackling some of the greatest challenges that we have in our education system, namely the model of inclusion that has been implemented.
We are empowering teachers to come in and help us with our policy decision-making and how we allocate resources. That’s the first time that has ever happened, right? It’s the first time that has ever happened. The union is participating with that because we have to keep perspective on these issues.
The member did reference the labour dispute and that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about that. We need to separate those circumstances from what our collective objective is for everybody in the sector, be it union, teachers, administrators, government, or boards, and that’s our kids and making sure that they get what they need. When we do that - as we’ve done in the Commission on Inclusive Education, as we’re doing with the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions - you actually see all of those groups, who did have a moment of conflict and most likely will again, coming together and working in the best interests of our kids. They are a shared collective responsibility, and we have a duty to do that.
We believe we have demonstrated that every single year. As I mentioned, the Premier has said that if he leaves one legacy behind, he wants it to be in the education system. He wants to achieve the transformative changes that we all know we need to give our kids the best start and the best chance at succeeding at life.
Just to put the cost of pre-Primary into perspective - and I know for the NDP it will always tie back to labour negotiations, because that’s where their ideological focus is, and I think we can all recognize that - every 1 per cent increase that we have negotiated in the collective agreement equals approximately $50 million to the bottom line of the budget. That’s a 1 per cent pay increase. To put that into perspective, we will be implementing a free universal pre-Primary program for the cost of $50 million when it’s fully implemented. That the same cost as 1 per cent.
You see why these difficult decisions on the labour front that we’ve had to make are important for what we’re trying to achieve. We do not want to add to the debt. We do not want to add to the interest payments we’re paying on that debt. We do not want to cripple future governments’ financial ability to spend on programs and services that Nova Scotians need. We want to invest in areas right now that we know people need expanded service in, and early learning is one of them.
That’s why I’m very proud of the decisions we’ve made. I’ve been proud to stand behind our Premier and the previous Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to continue on this path that I think demonstrates clearly to Nova Scotians who are able to look beyond the tempest of the moment and see what the long-term plans are.
MS. CHENDER: I would suggest that there are more than 9,000 teachers in this province who might take issue, but let’s move on, since we can maybe agree to disagree for the next 30 minutes and 22 seconds.
The minister indicated that creating this pre-Primary system was more affordable than expanding capacity in the existing regulated child care sector. This is back to priorities. Is the minister able to provide the cost analysis that was conducted by the department to determine this?
MR. CHURCHILL: It’s simple logic. We do not have the physical capacity in the subsidized child care sector to cover more than 25 per cent of our student bodies - or our children, sorry. They’re not students yet. They will be students at some point.
There’s a capacity issue in that sector. We have a choice of investing major dollars in capital infrastructure - which we’re going to do. We’re going to have more dollars on the table from the federal government - we have more dollars in this budget for that sector to grow that over time and expand it, to increase capacity. But we don’t want to wait for that to happen before we allow four-year-olds to have access to pre-Primary. We have buildings right now - every single community in this province has access to a school. Every single community. The infrastructure is already there. We don’t have to build it. We don’t have to wait 10 or 15 years until that sector is fully expanded to cover 100 per cent of the province. We have those buildings now that are being operated, that are already accounted for in our budgets.
Also, we know that children who attend pre-Primary in school actually have an easier transition into the academic learning environment, so having them in those buildings matters as well. But I do not want anyone to think that that does not mean we’re not going to expand the child care sector. In fact, as I mentioned today in Question Period, the child care sector has been expanded by 1,000 spaces in this province since we’ve taken office. We’ve invested dollars into that child care sector every single year.
We need them. We have a vested interest in their success, and we are going to have more dollars to help them grow, to help address some of the capital issues that they have, to support students with special needs, and those dollars will be coming to ensure that they can pay fair and competitive wages to ECEs. These investments are happening. This cannot be viewed as a pre-Primary or subsidized child care. These things need to happen together and we also need to recognize that even an expansion of the child care sector, as we invest in it and as it grows, it’s still going to cost parents to participate in it. There are still fees attached to that.
For early learning and pre-Primary, we view those fees as being a financial barrier, particularly for families who are in a lower-income situation. We want to erase that financial barrier. We want to erase the geographical barrier as quickly as possible, to get these folks into the system. We are ambitious because we know we’re only guaranteed four years of governing, Mr. Speaker. We’re only guaranteed four years of governing.
You know, I hope to govern for many more and to be part of a government under our current Premier, for it would be nice to have another eight years but that is not up to any of us in this Chamber. That is up to the voters. So, we know we have four years to execute on this commitment. So, we’re not going to wait. We’re not going to waste a day as we haven’t. We’re going to be thoughtful and deliberate with our decision-making in this regard. We are going to work with the child care sector to help them through this, recognizing the stress and anxiety that it is creating for them. I want to recognize that.
I am not suggesting in any way that this is not going to create challenge for some or perhaps many of our operators and their current business model but we are committed to working with them on that transition, because we need them to be a part of this. We need them to provide a robust system of support for kids and families in the province and we are demonstrating that by investing more, every single year, in our budget. We are demonstrating that by having consultation with them, where we’re going to be conducting labour market research on their behalf, and we’re going to be doing that in our negotiations with the federal government, that will see more dollars go in to grow and support that sector.
MS. CHENDER: So the answer is no. There is no cost analysis.
Moving on, I appreciate that the government’s stated intention that pre-Primary programs provide access to children who are most vulnerable and otherwise wouldn’t have access, and we talked about that a little bit yesterday. Based on our discussion yesterday, the EDI was raised as a way to find out who those vulnerable children are. But as I understand it, the government hasn’t collected any specific information on families accessing these programs.
I guess I’m concerned that if we don’t have the data now, it will be very difficult to track and report on. Will the minister agree to request that information about families currently enrolled in pre-Primary and report that back to the House?
MR. CHURCHILL: As I mentioned yesterday in these deliberations, enrolment in pre-Primary automatically puts the data from these children in our PowerSchool system. We have the digital infrastructure in place to collect that data and that data is available to educators in the system, to policy decision-makers, to our boards, and to parents. So as soon as children are enrolled in pre-Primary, their information will be incorporated into our PowerSchool framework because, again, we recognize the importance of this information. We want this program to work and we know it’s going to work, but we’ve got to keep track of the data to make sure we’re doing that and achieving our objectives. There’s already the infrastructure in place to do that, and that is already happening with those students who are currently enrolled in the system.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, I’d love to just see exactly what data is being collected in that way and what we’ll be able to follow up on, but I’m glad you raised this issue that we discussed yesterday about PowerSchool and TIENET which, of course, was a non-cost-related issue in the recent labour dispute - PowerSchool and TIENET.
My question is, does this mean that ECs in pre-Primary classrooms are entering information into these systems in the course of the day? Will they be using Powernet in that way, in the same way that teachers are now using it?
MR. CHURCHILL: A very important question. That is one of the things that we heard from teachers, that it took away from their time teaching our kids, was data entry. We have to recognize that data entry is important, to make sure that all of our kids are achieving the outcomes that we want them to and doing their very best. But we want to ensure that data entry is not taking away from the more important work that teachers are doing.
In terms of the general information lines that we collect, we can provide you with the data that we collect. I obviously can’t give you any specific data, on individual cases, and I know that’s not what the member is looking for, but we can inform the member of what specific data categories there are that are being collected.
I’ll also point to the fact that for the council to improve classroom conditions, this is a priority. Data entry, collection, reporting, these are all policy topics that they will be attacking and they’re going to be doing that to reduce teacher workload; to identify how other administrative supports can assist with data entry so that teachers can focus on teaching; and making sure that the data we’re collecting is relevant and needed, so that we’re not collecting data on things that we’re not using. That is an ongoing process.
As I mentioned yesterday - I think in our conversations with the member for Dartmouth East - we have had Internal Services come into the department, along with Service Nova Scotia, to begin an ask-the-user program. That is a process by which these folks go out and actually talk to teachers, to identify their thoughts and what the broadest consensus is on the challenges of data entry for PowerSchool and TIENET. They are going to come back with a report that is entirely based on consultations with teachers and administrators in that regard.
I expect to make some really good adjustments to the way we collect date for teachers, with the intention of giving them more time to focus on their kids.
In terms of data collection for pre-Primary enrolments, it’s not going to be the same as it is for those in the academic learning environment. In our schools they’re collecting data on marks, outcomes, all these different things. For the play-based curriculum, the data collected will be much smaller. I will get a list of those data categories that we will be collecting information on, for the member. I would actually appreciate her feedback on those, to make sure that the categories we’re collecting data on are important and relevant.
MS. CHENDER: As the minister has surely noticed, I always welcome the chance to give feedback so I’m happy to do that. It sounds like yes, in fact the ECs employed in the pre-Primary classrooms will be collecting some information via these data entry systems.
My understanding is that these ECs are paid only for the hours that the program is open, so is there time allocated there for administrative tasks, like this data entry or anything else that they are expected to do in that regard?
MR. CHURCHILL: There’s not currently time allocated for that but I’ll just point out again that the data being collected will not be the same as in the academic, in school, where they’re collecting a really broad host of data on academic outcomes, attendance, all these sorts of things. That’s not happening in the pre-Primary program. The data that is going to be entered is much smaller and simpler in scope than that.
Of course on the other side, with the P-12 system, we are working on improving that system so that we’re eliminating redundant information that we are currently requiring teachers to put into the system, and focusing on what’s important, ensuring that they have administrative support to help them with that so they can focus more of their time and energy in their classrooms, teaching their kids. That is the goal of that review and I think we’ve got the right people doing that.
We’re engaged in a really good process that will help us identify the broadest consensus points on this issue, so I feel really good about the fact that this is going to be a very informed process of decision making as we move forward. It’s not going to be unilateral in the department as has previously happened under all governments. We have a group of people in the department who are very capable, very thoughtful, and very good at what they do. We have made decisions as governments that have created frustrations for our teaching workforce, and we need to fix that. We need to make sure that they’re involved in that decision-making process because having that level of information is going to make our decisions a lot better and, I think, have the greatest impact possible positively for the system.
MS. CHENDER: Just a last question here. Are schools provided any additional staff or funding to cover administration related to pre-Primary?
MR. CHURCHILL: In the budget which we are looking at right now, there are FTEs associated with administration. Each board will receive a lead coordinator to administer the program. They will deal with the HR matters and program implementation. Principals are still responsible for a couple of things in this program, safety from a facility standpoint and finding substitutes if they’re required. The decision was made in that regard because principals are doing that already for the schools and are in the best position to execute on those issues. We do have administration built in at the boards now, who are funded FTEs to help us administer and implement this.
MS. CHENDER: I want to ask a few questions about wage grants in the child care sector. In December 2016, the Auditor General released a report on his office’s audit of licenced child care and found the department wasn’t managing grant and subsidy programs to make sure they achieve what they were intended to, which is very similar to what the Nova Scotia Review of Regulated Child Care report found in March 2016 just a year ago. The Auditor General found that the way the wage grant was used was sometimes inconsistent with the intended purpose. For example, there were times when entry-level ECEs received more wage funding than ECEs with more experience.
We’re hearing that these same issues are still active issues in the sector and that this may have, in fact, been exacerbated by some of the changes that were introduced in 2016. I’m curious what the department is doing to address this problem.
MR. CHURCHILL: Very good question. I’m being informed by staff that the period of review from the Auditor General actually predated the new wage floor that we brought in, and we actually used those recommendations to inform how we move forward with the increased wage floor. I do think this is important to talk about because for way too long, our early childhood educators were not being paid a good living wage for the important and critical work that they’re doing in our communities. So one of the areas of investment, and one of the reasons why we do invest so heavily into that sector, is to increase that wage floor to a wage that is more competitive.
That is something I’ve been very proud to be a part of in this government. That was a priority for the previous Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, that we were able to move forward on. So, again, you will see in this budget another $5 million that is intended to support the increase of that wage floor.
I do want to self-correct something I said yesterday in relation to this. Yesterday I referred to this as a wage ceiling. That was a mistake. It’s a wage floor. Of course we don’t want to have a ceiling on what these folks can do because we know how important their work is for our students and we know how life-changing it can be.
Again to review the answer to the member’s question - the period of review pre-dated our increase in the wage floor. The recommendations from the AG informed how we rolled that out.
MS. CHENDER: I know that the wage floor was very welcomed by ECEs and, in fact, was somewhat overdue. My understanding is that they’re still pretty middling nationally in terms of what they get, but it’s certainly competitive and that’s a good thing. However, with the freeze on fees that came through while a new core funding formula was decided, that has created a huge pressure on child care centres because they now have an amount that they must pay their ECEs, and the only way they can find that amount in many cases is from their operating income. So we know many are operating in a deficit.
While that funding is appreciated, of course, I guess I’ll ask the same question I asked yesterday, which is, when will they see a new funding formula that will allow them to operate in a less precarious manner?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member is correct. The money we are investing in that sector is to also subsidize rates that are charged to families. As we mentioned, we don’t want there to be financial barriers in terms of families accessing needed child care in our province. So that is an area of investment that we’re actually quite proud of - to bring those rates down to the best of our ability, particularly for those in low income situations.
Recognizing that it has created a bottom line challenge for the subsidized businesses, there is a process that they can participate in, where they appeal to the department and present the business case to increase those rates, if they are needed. So if there are any specific providers whom the member knows are experiencing that challenge right now because of the government-imposed low rates for families, they can actually reach out to us and present a business case for increasing their fees that we will take into full consideration.
MS. CHENDER: I think what I was getting to wasn’t so much that I would like centres to be able to raise rates, but more that they would receive funding from government such that they don’t have to raise rates and that they’re able to operate sustainably, but I do appreciate that.
I’ll sort of add a question there directly related to accessibility, which is that the AG found in that same report that the department had set targets related to accessibility and affordability, but we haven’t been able to find a definition of what accessible and affordable child care means. So I would like to know what the department is using as a definition for, in particular, affordable and accessible.
MR. CHURCHILL: Yes, in terms of the overall funding formula, this is part of the negotiations that we’re having with the federal government. There is going to be a new funding formula tied to that. This is also going to be part of our consultation with the sector and we need to have information from them on how they want that to look as we move forward, also recognizing the action plan that we have for the sector and making sure that those needs are coinciding.
In terms of the second question the member asked - the definition of accessible and affordable child care - I’m being told that is stated specifically in the child care action plan. The member can reference that. We do not have that document with us today, but I’m sure the member can either find that, or if she does need, we can provide that to her.
MS. CHENDER: We heard yesterday that all of the existing pre-Primary programs, the SchoolPlus programs and the Early Years programs are now going to fall under this banner of pre-Primary in an effort to have consistency, I suppose, across the system, which makes sense. But based on my understanding, some of those programs are, in fact, staffed by teachers. Many of them have a different student-to-teacher ratio. I guess my question is, are those programs going to be grandfathered in, or are they going to be changed to look like all of the other pre-Primary programs?
MR. CHURCHILL: The Early Years Centres were the pilot for the pre-Primary program. That’s where we gathered a lot of the feedback from communities on the value of these programs, which was very much in line with the body of research and evidence on the subject. They will all be brought into the pre-Primary program.
For pre-Primary, we need ECEs to run those classrooms for us. The lead ECE needs to be Level 1 or Level 2, meaning they have to have a post-secondary credential. That is the same for the second ECE. The third staff person, if the number of people in the class is up to 24, does not necessarily have to have that post-secondary credential to be the third person in the room. But the first two ECEs, lead and secondary, have to have that professional training because we believe that that is necessary to have a program that is going to execute on the objectives that we have for our children.
MS. CHENDER: Can the minister clarify if there are or were PowerSchool and/or Early Learning Years programs that were staffed by teachers who will now be replaced by ECEs?
MR. CHURCHILL: Right now, we think that there were ECEs in all of those programs. That’s the information that we have. If the member does have a situation where it was not an ECE, I do want to know that. I think the intention in the previous mandate was to have ECEs staff those positions. That transition, considering that fact, should be pretty easy.
MS. CHENDER: So then I’ll get to the question of ratios. I know that the ratios are, in fact, different. Many are nine to one, I believe, in the Early Years Centres. We’re moving to 10 to one. Will that nine to one remain where it exists now? Or will it change to the new ratio? If so, why? I would also appreciate any commentary about that different ratio.
MR. CHURCHILL: That’s a very important question, I know, a question that is of importance to the sector as well. There are a couple of things to consider for this. The ratios are and have been smaller for the child care sector because they have younger ages as well, which are more challenging to keep track of. They have two-year-olds and one-year-olds in these systems, so that has impacted the decision on ratios.
We’re looking at the Ontario model for ratios. They call it pre-kindergarten in Ontario. In Ontario, the ratios they have used are one to 10 for pre-kindergarten or pre-Primary classes that are in school, so that’s the model that we used.
This is a question that we’re going to pose to the sector in the consultation around ratios. They have indicated in the past that they would prefer a higher ratio. We want to know if that’s still the case, if that is where their policy position still is, and we want to make sure that it doesn’t jeopardize any safety, or anything like that.
That is part of the conversation we’re having. If we do hear from the sector that they do want the ratios to change and we can be sure that it’s not going to create any safety concerns, there will most likely be a change in that area for the sector.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you and I look forward to asking some questions about maybe the consultation in the next hour. In the meantime, just to clarify, where there is a ratio now of nine to one, or maybe it was last year, it may have already been changed in the Early Years Centres - is that now 10 to one? That is my question.
MR. CHURCHILL: The ratio for the pre-Primary program is 10 to one. That is based on these programs that are implemented in schools, so we’ve used the same ratio that other jurisdictions have used. I know this is a topic of interest for the sector, in terms of their ratios, so that’s a conversation that we’re very eager to have.
That consultation will commence fully by the end of this month. Preliminary conversations have already occurred with the sector. I’ve met with some representatives personally. They have come in and had conversations with the department. We’ve also brought them in to look at the model of consultation that we’re going to have, the questionnaire we’re going to use, the data we’re looking at collecting. So far, the feedback has been positive on what that consultation looks like.
I would ask members opposite to help us in terms of not de-legitimizing that process or hurting the credibility. It’s up to you obviously, but we do want people to participate in it. Then they can decide at the end of it whether it was valuable or not. But heading into it, we really want full participation because that’s necessary.
I do think that we have a credible person doing this for us, who is bright and intelligent and who is going to be asking the right questions. I think we’re going to really start paving the way to understanding how to best transition that sector into the new reality of pre-Primary in Nova Scotia and make sure that we’re charting a course where we’re all moving forward together in a way that’s going to provide the most robust child-care support for families and children in this province. We can only do that if we move forward together.
I want the sector to know that we’re committed to doing that. There will be additional dollars, as there have been in our last budgets, to support them in achieving that. The feedback we get from the consultation is going to be very important in terms of informing how we can achieve that. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the NDP caucus has expired. We’ll now move on to the PC caucus.
The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. TIM HOUSTON: Mr. Chairman, I thought maybe we’d start off with a couple of questions about the Yarmouth ferry. (Interruption) It worked over there too.
I’d like to ask the minister how many students in Nova Scotia were eligible for graduation in June 2017? How many students across the province were eligible for graduation?
MR. CHURCHILL: We don’t have that information in our budget documents but the deputy will take that question back to our staff and see if we can produce that number for the member.
MR. HOUSTON: Perhaps we have the information of how many students did graduate in 2017. I’d like to know how many were eligible and how many did graduate? Could we have that information?
MR. CHURCHILL: Considering that these are budgetary estimates and the conversations tend to focus on budgets, the information packages we have here that were prepared to provide to members, are focused on the budgetary components of the Education and Early Childhood Development Department. We don’t have those figures with the information packages that we have now, but we will endeavour to find those and provide them to the member.
MR. HOUSTON: How many students in the province are on IPPs? If it’s known for this school year, that would be great as part of this budget. If it’s not, how many students in the province were on IPPs last year?
MR. CHURCHILL: So again, the documentation that we have available for the member is specific to the budget. We can present what the budgets are to support students with special needs. We do not have those numbers with us but, of course, whichever numbers he stands up and is looking for that we don’t have, we will collect for him and make sure that he gets them.
MR. HOUSTON: Do you have numbers with students in the system on adaptations?
MR. CHURCHILL: So again, in preparing for legislative process - that’s entitled Estimates - that’s intended to review budgets, we do have the budgetary information for investments in all of these areas. We do not have enrolment information here but, if that is where the member does want to continue with his questioning, we will make sure that information is made available to him. So, perhaps, in order to give him more time to ask questions that we’re prepared to answer, we can get a list of enrolment questions that he has and we can respond accordingly with the numbers for him.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you and, just before I recognize the honourable member for Pictou East, I want to remind the House that the member asking the questions has the ability to ask whatever question he or she so desires. Whatever answers, minister - I appreciate your responses by way of being able to find the information at a later date. But, member, just so you are aware, you have the ability to ask the question but be assured as the minister stated, the information may not be readily available.
The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. HOUSTON: Alright, thank you, Mr. Chairman. These are numbers that I would have fully expected would be part of the budget process. I don’t understand how you can come up with a budget without knowing how many students are in the system and what the needs are of those systems. I guess in a former life as an accountant, there are just two ways you can budget. There’s one way you can pick a number and that would be the top down, and there’s another way from the bottom up. I would have thought in terms of educating kids, we’d be actually looking at details and coming up from the bottom as to what might be necessary to fund the education of the children in the province whose ultimate goal is to graduate. It would be nice if we knew how many were graduating.
I guess what I would ask is, how many students were eligible for graduation, and how many did graduate. I suspect that’s going to be a very high percentage but I’d like to see it. I’d like to see how many kids are on IPPs and adaptations, and I would like the list of class size, by class, by school for the province. So, those are some information requests I thought we’d be able to get to today but, I guess, if we can’t get to today, I could maybe get a commitment from the minister to provide those maybe within the week?
MR. CHURCHILL: So, of course, enrolment data informs the budgetary process. We do have that data. We do not have it in our budgetary package but, as I previously committed, we will provide that to the member and hopefully satisfy any questions that he has in that regard.
In terms of class sizes, those are reported in early November. So, those haven’t been reported yet by our school boards but they will be reported in short order and that information is public information. So, the member will be able to access that and, of course, if we’re still in the House when those numbers are available, he’ll be able to ask me any questions he likes on those.
MR. HOUSTON: Just in terms of fullness, Mr. Chairman, I’ll take it for last year. I’ll take it for November 2016, and I’d just like the minister to commit as to when I can expect this. Can I expect the information within the week? Can we expect it by next Friday? I’d like to have an actual date that I can know when to expect it - even maybe within the next 53 minutes maybe.
MR. CHURCHILL: Our staff are so good we’ve got some information right now that they were able to find on enrolment specifically. Now, this does not break down IPPs in the system. So these are general enrolments, per board, but this would be the number used for the funding formula, recognizing that currently the funding formula is based solely on enrolment.
I do want to also recognize, as I have previously in these deliberations, that support grants for boards to help kids with special needs has not been reduced as a result of enrolment decline. So we have held the line on special-needs supports with increased investment in our budgets at times, for certain boards who have an enrolment decline. I think that’s very important to note so that there is no confusion that these supports have decreased with enrolment figures, because they haven’t. In fact, there is $2.6 million in this year’s budget to achieve that goal.
So I’ll go through the enrolment figures for 2016-17 and 2017-18. These inform the overall operational funding that boards receive. In Annapolis in 2016-17, we had 12,717 students enrolled in that board; in Cape Breton, we had 12,477 students enrolled; in the Chignecto board, we had 19,380 students enrolled; in the CSAP, we had 5,384 students enrolled for that academic year; in HRSB we had 47,355 students enrolled for the capital region; in the South Shore board, we had 6,242 students enrolled; in the Strait area, we had 6,058; and in Tri-County, we had 5,694 students enrolled. That brings us to a total enrolment of 115,271 for the academic year of 2016-17.
There are some adjustments for this academic year. For Annapolis this year there are 12,645 students enrolled; that is a decrease of 72 students or a change of 0.6 per cent. In Cape Breton we have 12,253 students enrolled; that is a decrease of 224 or 1.8 per cent. In Chignecto, we have 19,253 students enrolled; that is a decrease of 127 students enrolled in that board, which is 0.7 per cent. For the CSAP, we have 5,551 students enrolled; this actually reflects an increase of 203 students in that board or an increase of 3.8 per cent, which brings us back to what is a good news story for that board. We have more students who are participating in French learning in our province, which is very exciting.
In Halifax - I don’t think this will be a surprise to everyone who is seeing all the wonderful development here in the capital region - there has been an increase of 601 students to the HRSB. That brings the number total to 47,956 students. That’s an increase of 1.3 per cent - also recognizing that there are schools from the CSAP in the capital region as well.
South Shore has decreased by 86 students this year to 6,156; that’s a decrease of 1.4 per cent to the student body. In the Strait area, there has been a decrease of 75 students, which brings that total to 5,983; that’s a decrease of 1.2 per cent. In the Tri-County there has been a decrease of 104 students, which brings the number total to 5,590; that’s a decrease of 1.8 per cent.
In all of these cases what I think is important to note, based on the fact that the majority of boards have decreased in enrolment, this is the first time in living memory of folks who are involved in the boards and in the system, where there haven’t been layoff notices to teachers as a result of these declining enrolments. That’s because we have hired more teachers in the system every single year. I know that from a board perspective, they’ve appreciated this because we’re hiring more teachers. There have been 761 teachers hired into our system.
What’s also important to note here is that despite these drops in enrolments, based on these enrolment numbers that the member was looking for, there is no decrease in special-needs funding, as I mentioned. So all of these boards are, at the very least, holding a line on special needs funding, no matter what the enrolment figures are. Those are two important factors that we take from the data presented.
We can actually break these down. I know the member wanted to have these numbers, so we are able to get them very quickly. I appreciate staff doing that. These are students who are eligible to graduate, that the member asked for. We moved pretty quickly - more quickly than I thought we were going to move, so great work to our staff for that.
In terms of senior high enrolment, this year there are 29,459 students enrolled. Sorry, that’s for the 2016-17 school year, so this would be the last academic year’s numbers. The number of students graduating is 8,783 from last year, and that is a graduation rate of 92.3 per cent. The number of students at the senior high level for withdrawal - so this would be those who did not graduate, or withdrew - is at 770, and that withdrawal rate is 2.6.
Now, I’m able to go back all the way to 2003, if these numbers are relevant to the member. Okay, the member does want to have that information. I’m happy to give it to him. We’ll go back one year, and then we’ll make sure the member has the rest of the information.
Compare those numbers from 2016-17 to 2015-16, and you will see some slight variances here, but in 2015-16, 29,804 senior high students were enrolled in that academic year. The number of students who graduated was 8,858, and the graduation rate was approximately 91 per cent. Withdrawal numbers for that year were 885, and that was a withdrawal rate of exactly 3 per cent.
Here are some of the numbers that the member was looking for. We can make sure that this is photocopied for him. We do have some board-by-board details. If that’s of interest to the member, we can provide him with that information as well.
MR. HOUSTON: Thank you for that. It was interesting that we actually got around to one of the questions that was asked, at the end there. It was an added bonus, I guess.
Does the minister have any information on how many cases of cyberbullying were reported last school year across the province?
MR. CHURCHILL: That information is housed in PowerSchool, and it is retrievable for the department. It’s not related to budgetary expenses, but we can get that information for the member. That is important information to look at.
What I do know off the top of my head is that rates of violence, or things that are considered to be violent in our schools - so that’s kicking, pushing, acts of intimidation or bullying - I do have the numbers. If memory serves me correctly, I believe that, percentage-wise, out of 118,000 students, there were about 0.5 per cent of students - half a percentage point - that were engaged in these acts.
Specifically, we see that happening more at an earlier age. This would be from Grade 5 and back, moments in time when kids are learning to process emotions - like some of us are still learning in this House, from time to time. We see 90 per cent of these incidents occurring at an earlier age in elementary school. As students get older, the rates of these violent interactions do decrease substantially - 90 per cent.
So we have 0.5 per cent of our student body who has been identified as being part of these acts, intimidation, kicking, pushing, threats, these sorts of things. It is not zero, but it is close. We have to keep pushing to get that number to zero if that is possible - 90 per cent of that being in the younger years.
In terms of the cyberbullying, we don’t have information for that yet, but we will try to retrieve that as quickly as we can for the member.
MR. HOUSTON: On June 29th, 2017, the Commission on Inclusion released their interim report, titled Turning Point. In that report, they indicated that the commission would be seeking input from stakeholders. Has that process started? What form will this input process take? And when will it start, if it hasn’t started already?
MR. CHURCHILL: The commission’s consultation work will begin imminently and that is going to take form in a number of ways. They are going to have regional meetings in each of our boards with people who are interested from the system and community members. They are going to have an online process for feedback, that the broad public can participate in. And that will be publicizing once it is live.
They will be meeting with groups or communities of interest. One I can think of in particular is Autism Nova Scotia, whom I met with recently. We are going to make sure they have a direct link into the Council on Inclusive Education. So in terms of the communities of special interest who have a stake in this, they will be meeting with representatives from those groups as well.
I also have more information that the member had asked for that was provided to us very quickly by staff. I want to thank them for that. The member was looking for this by next Friday, but we were able to produce it in a matter of minutes for him. So I do want to thank our staff who produced this so quickly.
In terms of students on adaptions in the system, there are 30,808 students on adaptions. For IPPs, there are 6,520 students on IPPs. We have those specific numbers for the member and I am happy to provide those to him.
MR. HOUSTON: Maybe we can just get that document copied and tabled. That’s great. I appreciate the quick turn around on that. Recommendation No. 12 of the Turning Point interim report called for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to confer with the Commission on Inclusion in respect of the department’s current review of the public school policy. They are supposed to work together. I am just wondering if that process has started and if there has been any interim report that they can provide.
MR. CHURCHILL: We have appointed an executive lead for this work in the department, so she is coordinating with the department, the Commission on Inclusive Education, the Departments of Justice, Community Services and Health and Wellness, as well as each and every school board. So we do have an executive lead in the department who is dedicated strictly to this work and she is a very competent and good person to be doing this for us. We know she going to do a good job.
MR. HOUSTON: Has the Bachelor of Education working group issued any report and, if not, what is their deadline to do so?
MR. CHURCHILL: The Bachelor of Education working group has been active for a year and a half and, since the interim report from the Commission on Inclusive Education, they have been tied into the commission’s work. So, that work has been ongoing for a while and is now focused on the requirements of the commission to complete their report in the Spring.
MR. HOUSTON: Just for a point of clarification, does the Bachelor of Education working group still exist, or is it disbanded and merged into the other group?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just before I recognize the honourable minister, I just request that information being passed along to the member for Pictou East to actually be tabled, to the benefit of all members of the House.
The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MR. CHURCHILL: Thank you. The work of the Bachelor of Education working group has been ongoing and is still active. It’s been ongoing for a year and a half. They have been, you know, working to ensure that our B. Ed. grads are able to serve the broad student population but, specifically, in response to the recommendation from the Commission on Inclusive Education, they are now looking at how do we better train our teachers to support students with special needs. And now, there is a focus in that regard in relation to the commission’s work. They are linked together. That group has been active for a year and a half. They are active now and, now, they have a specific area of focus that they do need to do some work on, and that work has been ongoing..
MR. HOUSTON: Thank you, and I would ask if maybe the minister can table the names of the members of that particular group or, at some point, provide those names on the Bachelor of Education working group.
Has the ECF, the Education Consultative Forum, issued any report on their progress on reaching their mandates?
MR. CHURCHILL: The ECF is active. They do meet twice a month. They do not issue reports. It is part of the management structure, so it informs management decisions within the system. I’m very happy that the group has now geared their focus for pre-Primary. That is now a topic of consideration for them and they will continue their meetings and work on an ongoing basis and that doesn’t inform any reporting measures. It informs management decisions in the system. So that’s the intention of that group and that’s what they are doing on our behalf.
MR. HOUSTON: Thank you. Is there any law or any collective bargaining act or any other statute that the minister might be aware of, that would prohibit school-level administrators from spending a certain amount of time per day in the classroom, or anything the minister is aware of that would prohibit school-level administrators from being in the classroom?
MR. CHURCHILL: Nothing that we’re aware of. We actually do have teaching principals in the system. I remember that being the case when I was in school all those many, many, many years ago, so, I’m not sure what the member is referencing. If there is a specific concern he has, I’d be happy to chat with him about that but, as far as I’m aware, based on my knowledge of the rules and regulations, that is not an issue.
MR. HOUSTON: I want to reference some comments from one of the presenters at Law Amendments the other night. There were five presenters at Law Amendments, five very passionate presenters. One was Ally Garber. I’m referencing Ally’s comments here. She says:
“Our provincial government argues that introducing pre-primary will provide a better start for our province’s four-year-olds. They argue that, in fact, this will allow developmental disabilities to be caught earlier - that overall our kids will be better prepared to go into Grade Primary.
I’m not here to disagree, actually. I don’t argue that a pre-primary program has exceptional merit, and that many of our provincial communities could greatly benefit.”
She’s fine with it, which I am too. But she asks the question, why now? I was thinking of this earlier when listening to the minister. Ms. Garber points out that:
“One of the leads on the Commission for Inclusive Education readily acknowledged that their recommendations won’t be for minor changes to be made to the inclusion model. Rather, their recommendations will require a major upheaval and restructuring that will require a significant investment.”
The question that was asked by the presenter was, “Would it not be prudent and fiscally wise for the government to await those recommendations and the associated costs before expanding our education system?”
That’s the question around pre-Primary. Nobody’s saying it’s not good for kids. People are saying it is good for kids. They’re saying, why now?
I was reminded of that - I found those comments, when I listened to the minister say in response to my colleague that, of course the government would be open to implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Inclusive Education. Of course, we will. But the minister cautioned that we don’t know how much they’ll cost, and he wasn’t about to sign a blank cheque in terms of making those recommendations.
On the one hand, we have the minister saying it wouldn’t be fiscally wise to just commit to making the changes that might come out of the Commission on Inclusive Education, and on the other hand, we have the government proceeding with a major, major change to the education system in advance of the recommendations of the committee.
I just went through and asked questions about the status of various committees and groups, and there were just four or five of them right here. We have committees and reviews all over the place, and yet we’re not waiting for the results of those before we proceed along the line. That is a concern for me.
In terms of how the rollout is happening, we know that there were 818 children enrolled in the program of a possible 9,000. I have heard a few times in this House the government referring to those families getting an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. I don’t know that that’s true for all of them because certainly some of these kids were in daycare somewhere, and they have been taken out of that. We don’t really know how many kids are getting an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, and there’s a lot of angst about it.
In terms of the location of the pre-Primary classes, I have asked before about some of the criteria. One that was brought to my attention is kind of concern about the placement of some of the classes. The specific one that was raised to me was in Glace Bay. There are two pre-Primary classes at the Glace Bay Elementary School. There’s another school just down the road - I think it’s John Bernard - where they arguably could be eligible for pre-Primary.
I guess the very specific question I would ask is, in that situation, why two pre-Primary classes in that one catchment area of Glace Bay Elementary and not one at Glace Bay Elementary and one at the other school? If it’s a true pilot and we want to see the impact, we should maybe spread it around. I think there’s a lot of overlap in the socio- economic situations of both of those communities. Why two at one school and not one at two different schools?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I will ask the honourable member to table the documents from which he read as well.
The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MR. CHURCHILL: I appreciate the questions. I am happy that I’ve seen a tempering of the member’s comments and rhetoric around pre-Primary. For the record, he did state publicly that were he the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, there would be no pre-Primary in the Province of Nova Scotia. (Interruption) I actually have the video of him saying that. (Interruption)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development has the floor. Each member has their opportunity to ask the questions. We shall all listen to the answers to the questions.
MR. CHURCHILL: As was stated publicly by the member, were he the Minister of Education, there would be no pre-Primary program in the Province of Nova Scotia. If he’d like to change or clarify those comments on the record in the House, we’d be happy to . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable member for Pictou East will come to order, please. He asked the question, the answer is being provided.
MR. CHURCHILL: Again, thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’ve seen the video footage, I believe I’m quoting here verbatim but perhaps I’m not. If the member would like to clarify his position on this, of course he has an opportunity to in these deliberations.
In fact, I hope he does because this is one of those programs that I think should be unifying to this House, simply because the body of evidence and research is so abundant and conclusive on the positive impacts that pre-Primary can have on the lives of our children and the lives of our students, in the academic setting and beyond. There is actually information on the returns on investment into these areas as well.
The primary argument I’ve heard presented by the members opposite is, well how can you tackle, or why invest in pre-Primary while there are all these other issues that are going on in the system? (Interruption) I’ll get to the member’s question, if he gives me a moment.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable member for Pictou East will come to order and allow the minister to answer the question. You will have your opportunity, if time permits, within the hour.
MR. CHURCHILL: The argument being presented is that we have all these other issues in the education system, why bother to invest in a pre-Primary program before we fix these other challenges? The premise of that argument is that these are mutually exclusive events, that pre-Primary is separate from the challenges that we are experiencing, that teachers are experiencing in the system when, in fact, I believe the literature shows and we will make the argument that these things actually coincide with one another.
Yes, we know there are challenges in the system. There are families and students who aren’t getting the supports they need to achieve and do their very best. I humbly recognize that. That is a challenge, it is a systemic challenge. What points to the fact that that is a systemic challenge is that no matter how many more individualized supports we are providing in the system or that our boards are providing, we are still not keeping up with the needs of those families.
We do have to tackle those systemic challenges. The member is absolutely correct in saying that, so we’re looking at the model of inclusion as we do that. We’re looking in terms of supporting our teachers’ focus on what’s important, teaching our children. We’re looking at taking away some of the burdensome paperwork and reporting and data entry that they have been required to do. We’re empowering them to make decisions in their classroom in relation to attendance. They are informing our decisions on assessment and evaluation, and we’re looking at the administrative model of education delivery. For the first time in a very long time we’re going to do a complete review of the department and our board structure, so these things are happening.
Also what needs to happen is a better system of early learning in the province. This is part of the solutions to the challenges that we’re facing, because we know that early learning is extremely beneficial. It helps with cognitive - there are cognitive benefits associated with it. There are emotional benefits. Kids learn better and achieve more in the education system when they have early learning opportunities.
While the members opposite would argue to fix these things before you think about early learning, we would argue that in order to fix all these challenges holistically, early learning need to be part of that plan. That’s why we’re moving forward with such an ambitious agenda.
In terms of the locations which the member asked about, we had originally anticipated 30 pre-Primary locations for Phase I. That is what our original thought was. That’s what we thought the demand was going to be, when we initiated this, working directly with our boards to identify where the locations would be, where the needs are, based on EDI and lack of services. Those are the two criteria we used. What is the data telling us on where this is needed the most and where aren’t these services currently being provided or accessed? Those are the two criteria we used.
So we’ve gone out into those communities to provide these services, and as the member recognized, some of these communities who are receiving this are high needs communities.
What happened was, school boards actually experienced a much greater demand from communities than we had anticipated. They had more families come forward who said, we want to access this, this is important for us, we want our kids enrolled in these programs. So the boards actually came to us with requests to have additional classrooms. As we said, we don’t want there to be a wait-list for this. We want to accommodate as many children as possible, as quickly as possible in this program, and so we were responsive to the boards’ requests.
So in the case of the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, they had requested a second class in a community that needed this because of the demand that was being expressed from parents. They made the recommendation to have that where the space was available in that school. In all of our decision making on this, we’ve been very dependent on information that has come forward from the board, which is entirely based on feedback they’re getting and enrolment numbers in their communities.
We had so much excitement about this program. Just shy of 1,000 people pre-registered for it. After vetting those numbers and ensuring that students were in the catchment areas or were eligible from an age perspective - because some people who pre-registered were too young - that number came to about 818. We are working very diligently with our partners to accommodate those needs in our communities, which we know are real, based on the data.
Now we’re actually going to be up to 53. Just this week we had another request from a board to have another classroom. That brings us up to 53.
I know that there is a legitimate concern about impacts to the private sector - the subsidized sector and not-for-profit sector. We have worked in a way to mitigate conflict with them, to give us time to consult before Phases 2 and 3. Out of 384 operators in the province, I had heard yesterday from three who have indicated there are staffing issues. We’re working with them to address those staffing issues. That’s three out of 384.
We’ve heard from one - I know it’s from the Pictou area, I don’t know if it’s from that member’s riding - who was concerned about future enrolment impacts to their business. We’re working with them on that.
Of course we heard - and I heard directly as the MLA for Yarmouth - from a constituent who has argued that pre-Primary has impacted her business and she is being forced to close her doors. I have called her and left her a message. She did message me on Facebook. I need to know more about that situation because there’s actually not a pre-Primary site in that area. Another operator in that very same area has indicated that her enrolment is so high that she can’t accommodate the children that she’s being asked to. So I do need to get more information from my constituent on that particular situation because I don’t know, to date, how pre-Primary has impacted her business based on the information that’s available.
I will note that this is around 1 per cent of the sector that so far has indicated they’ve been impacted. That means 99 per cent of the sector, to date, has not. I think that’s because we’ve been thoughtful. We’ve moved quickly, but it hasn’t been rushed. We’ve been deliberate. We’ve executed ambitiously on this and, you know what, it’s not just because of the elected members of government. We were able to do this because of J. L. Huntington and her staff in the department, who worked tirelessly all summer with our partners in the boards, who worked very diligently to have the staffing in place and to have the furniture ordered and have the classrooms set up.
This was a real team effort, and I think this should be a moment of inspiration for all of us because government is oftentimes too heavily criticized for moving very slowly and I’m sure that even as MLAs, we’ve experienced that frustration as well.
This is a moment in time where the government moved quickly, where government was ambitious and where government achieved its goal of ensuring more kids - whom I really believe will benefit from this program - are able to enter into it in this very year. We’ve done it in a way that has mitigated, to the best of my knowledge to date, impacts on our subsidized private sector and not-for-profit child care sector child care providers.
I do want to recognize, honestly, that I understand and am empathetic to the stress that this transformative change will have on those child care providers, I understand that. From a business perspective, the four-year-olds are probably the most lucrative components of their market, but we are in a situation where we are not covering enough of our province. Where not enough students are accessing these early learning initiatives.
I know that every single ECE knows how important their work is and the impact they can have on the lives of the children they touch. I know they agree with us that one in four children accessing these programs is not enough and we’ve got to do better, but we do have to do it together. We have invested more dollars into that sector year after year. There will be further investments to help them transition, to help them grow strategically so that their capacity is increasing in the province, and to help them deal with children with special needs. These investments have been ongoing and will continue to come in tandem with investments in pre-Primary.
In conclusion, sites, boards - we took the directives from boards. They made a decision based on demand and need in their community, from what they were experiencing on enrolment data.
In terms of the other concerns in the education system, I recognize they are real, they matter, they are consequential. The challenges that we have in the education system are absolutely consequential for our children and for our families. This is part of that solution, I promise you that. The research and evidence is conclusive on this. This is part of that solution. It is not separate from these other issues we’re experiencing. We’ve got to move forward holistically to address all these challenges.
I’m really proud of the fact that we’re doing this with pre-Primary. I think we’re at the dawn of a new age of learning in this province, where four-year-olds from one end of the province to the next are going to get these early supports that we know will be to their great benefit academically, and from a life perspective beyond school.
MR. HOUSTON: Mr. Chairman, we got an answer at the end - the minister says the board asked for the second site at that school. So we can follow up on that.
I do find it interesting, what I would say is that the minister says, don’t know if we can respond to the Commission on Inclusion because we don’t know how much it’s going to cost, but puts the cart before the horse and says we’re going to spend $50 million on this thing over here that may or may not be part of what the commission comes up with. It’s just that, I personally can’t turn my back on all those kids in Grades P-12 and say, good luck with it, we’re going to do this, we don’t know if we can respond to the other changes.
Just before I pass my time to my colleague for Cumberland North, I would conclude with this. As much as the government acting quickly may surprise people on this issue - the minister would argue ‘pleasantly surprise’ - I don’t know if it’s a pleasant surprise, but it would certainly be a surprise that government has acted so quickly.
The minister did deliver on a common perception that the public has of politicians in general, that we see manifest itself in the low voter turnout and some of the things that people say about politicians. Every time the minister stands in this Chamber - which he happily does consistently - and misrepresents what another member said, he delivers wholly on the public’s expectation of politicians. I’m sure people will recognize that, as they do.
I thank the Chairman for his time, and I pass my time to the member for Cumberland North. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cumberland North.
MS. ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: I’ll try to be efficient, I know we have only a few minutes left, to the minister.
One of the things that has come up around education in Cumberland North - and I’m assuming that it has come up around the province - is the issues that arise around bullying. I know there’s been a lot of marketing and public relations done around this topic, but we have several families who are impacted.
What I’m look for today from the minister is any advice to me as an MLA and to my office, as to how we can support families. I’ve had several families come to my office and to my assistant and they feel that the justice system, the education system, has failed them as they see their child struggling. It’s heartbreaking, especially with the concern around some of the unfortunate outcomes if a child is struggling, and it really can take a toll on them.
So, my question to the minister is, do you have any advice for myself and my staff, when we are faced with a family who are desperate and they feel like they’ve exhausted all the resources that schools currently and the education system currently have to offer around bullying?
MR. CHURCHILL: Thank you very much. This is a very important topic. We know how consequential acts of bullying and intimidation can be in our system. For the first time, we have brought forward a provincewide code of conduct for our students. We think in order to change behaviour, you first begin with the rules and with the laws. That’s the first step to changing behaviour and, in terms of the individual supports, those do happen at the local level in our schools.
I do have some questions myself, as minister, that I have not answered yet on how to address this situation more broadly. While we need to be there for kids - you need to have supports in place for our children during moments of distress when they’re dealing with either another child, youth, who’s impacting their sense of well-being and mental health in whatever way they’re doing that. I think it’s difficult to police that, especially considering the fact that everybody has one of these now. Everybody can go home and they can’t escape the people who are creating them distress. That stuff can follow them home. It can follow them anywhere they go and I don’t think there are easy solutions to that.
I think we do have to look to rules and regulations around use of devices, but our ability to do that is very limited to when they’re at school. That’s what we can control, how they use these things when they’re at school, teaching them responsible use, and, hopefully, that will help kids decide to bully less.
A broader question I have had recently - and I’ve been able to talk to Dr. Stan Kutcher about this - is how we can help our children become more resilient to these situations. What’s the difference between conflict which is normal and that kids are going to go through, that we’re going to go through here in the House, that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis - interhuman communication oftentimes will entail conflict, which is normal. We need to, first of all, figure out what exactly bullying is and make sure we’re not calling every single conflict that exists bullying, because I think that takes away from a student’s and child’s ability to actually handle that situation as best they can. But when it comes to bullying, how do we actually help our kids become more resilient people - you know, as young people and as they get older. I really think there must be a way of doing that, either through curriculum or perhaps through special supports. Again, I’m pontificating here.
I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think that’s a challenge for us. How do we help our kids? Since we can’t control everything, you know, since we know there are going to be some jerks who follow these kids home - who are probably dealing with their own individual challenges, usually. Any bullies I’ve known throughout the course of my life have not been happy, supported people. How do we help them deal with their challenges so they’re affecting other people less but, also, how do we help our kids be more resilient? How do we help them manage these situations better? How do we help them keep perspective of these situations?
So those are questions I would gladly accept feedback on, from every single member of this House and anybody who has some thoughts on it, because I do think these are critical questions that we need to have answered moving forward on this very important question.
MS. SMITH-MCCROSSIN: It is a very challenging topic and it’s something I can perhaps speak more one on one with you in the future.
Here is an easier question: parking lots in a school. I have a school in Amherst that the parents and the school administration have approached the school board for about six years, to have the parking lot paved and they’re not getting any results. Do you have any advice to me? They’re coming to me as MLA. Some people are losing tires, damaging their vehicles because of the size of the holes in the parking lot.
MR. CHURCHILL: Capital repair projects are chosen at the board level. I’m not certain if that capital repair project has been advanced by the board, but I’m happy to get the specifics of that and see if it’s on our list. In terms of the process that we undergo, capital repairs, capital needs, they all come from the board, based on priority. They are submitted to us and then of course we have to go through our budgetary process to see what we’re able to do in terms of tackling what are significant capital challenges in our system that are very costly. It is very difficult to keep up with, if we’re being honest here today.
If there are specifics the member would like to present to me on that, I can inform her whether that has been submitted. If it hasn’t, I would suggest that she go to her board representative and have a chat with him about whether that is going to be on the list of capital repair submissions for the province.
MS. SMITH-MCCROSSIN: The school that I’m referring to is E.B. Chandler Junior High School, so thank you for that response.
There is another topic I just wanted to bring up and there is no quick solution that you can probably offer to me today. We’ve had French Immersion in Cumberland County now for 13 years, I believe. It’s a very exciting program. The people of our area are so pleased to be able to have their children become bilingual.
There are a few flaws in the program that I as a parent who had three children go through the French Immersion program, have tried to address with our local board, with no success, so I’ll bring it up here. That is, sometimes the requirements to be truly seen as full immersion are a certain amount of French classes. Because of staff shortages of not having enough teachers who are bilingual, they haven’t always been able to provide that, and I think the outcomes are showing it.
I don’t know the actual results, but I’ll give you an example of someone quite close to me who went through the whole French Immersion program, all 12, 13 years, and had an average mark of around 95, but failed the provincial oral French exam. So here was a child whom the parents assumed was meeting all of the requirements of the French Immersion program because their marks were so high, but at the end of the program when they were tested, they actually failed. I’m assuming that’s a reflection of the inability to provide the French curriculum. So, I’m just wondering if you have any comments about that.
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the challenge of recruiting French speaking teachers, that, right now is a national challenge - it’s not specific to Nova Scotia. We are working with our BEd programs - mainly Sainte-Anne’s - to help us produce more French speaking educators.
This is a symptom of a good news story in that there are more students enrolling in French speaking programs. I think that’s very good, especially considering the great history we have in this province of our Acadians and the fact that we are seeing uptake in enrolment in the French board, I think is really inspiring, although it is creating some challenges in terms of staffing. Again, this is nationwide. We’re working with our BEd providers to address that.
I do have more information that was provided by staff that I would like to present and table for the member for Pictou East. We have a list of the BEd working group for him:
co-chairs Dr. Paula Hayden and Dr. Mary Bluechardt; superintendents Beth McIsaac, Elwin Leroux, Gary Adams, Roberta Kubik, and Michael Comeau; deans and directors of education Jeff Orr, Ann Vibert, Dany Sheehy, John Guiney Yallop, Mary Jane Harkins; from the NSTU, Anne Rodrigue; Ava Czapalay, from LAE; from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Sue Taylor-Foley and Jeremy Brown.
I also have a transcript of the comments that the member made, and I’m very happy if at some point he does want to clarify what he meant, because maybe I am misinterpreting this. But when Jean Laroche had said, congratulations, you’re the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development - what would you do? The member said, I wouldn’t have started this program. That happened on the 27th of this month, 2017. I can table both of these documents. (Interruptions)
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order please. The honourable member for Cumberland North.
MS. SMITH-MCCROSSIN: One of the comments that I wanted to make to the minister - more of a general statement. As an employer here in Nova Scotia as well as a parent - I realize parents have a role to prepare our children as well - I’m also concerned that our education system is not preparing our children for the workplace.
It has been my experience in the last number of years with young employees who, if there’s a snowfall, for example - I know that buses and schools are closed for safety, and there are liability issues. But I believe that our schools should be held to the same level and standards as the real world and the workplace.
Last year, I had a young new employee who was 19. There was a small snowfall that day, and schools were cancelled. He told me he was very surprised that the business was open. I asked, why would the business be closed? He said because schools are closed. I said, but that’s not the real world. In the real world, businesses stay open unless there’s a 60-centimetre snowfall. We can’t afford to just close. I’m just concerned as a parent and as an employer that we need to be ensuring we’re preparing our children and our youth for the real world.
Along that same line of thought, I’ll give you an example of our youngest child, and hopefully she won’t hear this. She’ll know that I’m talking about her. She is in Grade 12 and has taken three courses but will start university next year. I don’t believe she’ll be ready and prepared based on her current workload.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time for the PC caucus has expired. We will take a short recess.
[2:23 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[2:28 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We’ll now call the committee back to order. I will recognize for the New Democratic Party caucus. We have 41 minutes to finish out the day.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: I wanted to follow up on a couple of questions from last day around the payments to those numbered companies from Public Accounts. Those were payments to P3 schools. I just want to get my head around the P3 piece a bit here.
Much of the information about the actual costs of P3 schools have not been made publicly available. So, there’s a lot we don’t quite know is that - and correct me if I’m wrong, please - a CCPANS report points to one instance in which two developers saw a profit of $52 million over the length of the lease for property management services. We asked yesterday, as I just said, about payments to numbered companies and the minister told us that they were for technical upgrades and maintenance for P3 schools.
So my first question is, were these payments made before or after the province purchased these schools.
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the member’s comment on financial information related to P3 schools that’s not made public, I’m not familiar with any information that hasn’t been made public. All that information should be available to the broad public, in terms of what the cost of this program has been. If there’s specific information that the member is looking for that she believes is not in the public realm, I’d ask her to inform us of that and we can help her track that down.
In terms of the budget items for technological maintenance and upgrades, those have moved forward in accordance with the P3 contracts in advance of purchases, so those schools have not been purchased yet. I think the first one’s going to be purchased next year, and they will be purchased in a staggered way through to 2020. It’s not a one-lump-sum purchase of those schools. The purchases will be staggered, beginning next year, up until 2020.
These numbers are reflective of our requirements, based on the contracts with the private providers.
MS. CHENDER: So it may be that I and my research staff just don’t know exactly where those costs are for P3 schools, but is it possible to get a final accounting on the cost of each of those schools, including the lease and the maintenance and the purchase costs broken out, so that we can see and understand that?
MR. CHURCHILL: We will provide the member with that information. If there is specific information in relation to the cost that she’s looking for, I would just ask her to inform us of it, and we will help track that information down.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you. Hopefully we could get that in relatively short order. As I said, the key components are the lease, maintenance, and purchase costs.
Just to tie that up, for those P3 schools that have already been purchased - and please tell me if none have been purchased - for the ones that will be purchased, are there any ongoing obligations, based on these contracts, to use the contracted services that were there when the schools were owned by the developers?
My question really is, once we buy them, do we sever all ties with the developers? Or will we still see those large payments flowing through to numbered companies?
MR. CHURCHILL: There is no requirement to use them after the purchases.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you. The last thing I want to ask today is a brief question and a clarification. The first is - we went back and forth a bit about ratios at the end of the last hour, but I just had one really simple question that I want to clarify.
In early year centres, up until this year, the ratio was one lead to nine children. The ratio in pre-Primary is 1 to 10, so I’m asking if those centres will now be moved to the new ratio, or if they will stay as they were.
MR. CHURCHILL: It’s my understanding that the ratio was 1 to 10 in the early years centres, but we will confirm that for the member. The plan is for the ratio in the pre-Primary program to be 1 to 10. Of course, recognizing that it is an important question for our subsidized child care sector, we will be discussing their ratios in the upcoming consultation, and will appreciate the feedback that they give us in terms of what they think they need while ensuring a healthy and safe environment for our early learners.
MS. CHENDER: I had been informed that it was 1 to 9, so maybe we could just clear that up afterward. We can talk about it. I don’t think we need to talk more about it - I think we’ve gotten that out of the way.
My last question is about the consultation. I noted the minister exhorting us not to - what would it be, to sour the consultation process in advance. As the minister has rightly pointed out today, it’s hard to judge things when you haven’t seen them yet. To that end, I would ask the minister to share with us what the plan for the consultation is, what it will include and what that $50,000 budget number will cover.
MR. CHURCHILL: That will be made available once the consultation is launched. We are in the process of finalizing that. That will happen by the end of this month. By no means am I suggesting that the members don’t ask important question or level important criticisms about this. I don’t want the member to misinterpret me.
But obviously I want there to be credibility with this process because I want people to participate in it; that is my only concern. I just want to make sure that the sector participates in it, so that we can benefit from their breadth of knowledge and opinions. That is not to suggest we can’t debate the consultation or the questions or the way it is rolling out or anything like that. Of course, I accepted that that is something we all must do.
But for my intentions, obviously, I just want people to understand that the information they give us is going to be important. It is going to help inform us how we invest future dollars in the child care sector. It is going to help inform the sector on labour market potentials for them. We are going to see, what do families need? Okay, wrap-around care, is there an ability to partner on these sorts of things. Are there other things that families are looking for that will create a market opportunity for these folks?
So, from my perspective this will be a valuable process for us and our decision making. My only concern is that people participate, because if they don’t participate then it will impact the value of this consultation. That is my only concern and I don’t want anyone to misinterpret that in terms of me suggesting we don’t discuss this or have healthy debates about it. But I just want people to participate that’s all.
MS. CHENDER: So my question was what the budget of $50,000 would pay for; it sounds like that is still under development. Further to my previous comments, I would suggest that since it’s probably fair to say that your colleagues on this side of the House have been in closer consultation with that sector than this government has - by your own admission - perhaps you can share that consultation plan with us and in fact we could help to implement it, and we would be very happy to do that. But that would be great sooner, rather than later. With that, pending any response from the minister, I will share my time now with the Leader of our Party.
MR. CHURCHILL: That is a reasonable request if the intention of the member is to help us enhance that process. I don’t question the intentions of the member for that. So once we have that finalized, I am happy to share it with you and seek your feedback and that is, obviously of course, expecting that the intention is not to use that against the process in any way but to work proactively.
I do have an answer for the member for Cumberland North on the cases of cyberbullying, if I could just take a moment. In 2015-2016, there were 272 cases of cyberbullying that have been recorded in the province. That represents again 0.5 per cent of all unacceptable behaviours that have been recorded in our PowerSchool system. I hope the member finds that information is useful.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Leader of the New Democratic Party.
MR. GARY BURRILL: Just to say, introducing this last segment of this discussion, I would hope that the minister would have enough respect for the people on whose behalf we are offering questions this afternoon from our Party, not to engage in any more extended pontifications on the world-historical significance of his Party and his contributions to it.
This afternoon I wish to focus in on a particular question very closely. The particular question that I would like to get some information on as soon as possible, is the matter that has been troubling a lot of people here in Halifax about Le Marchant St. Thomas School. I am sure the minister will be aware that the parents of Le Marchant received an email a couple of months ago, if that, saying that the date that the whole school community had been given to understand, at which they could look towards having a new school open, September of 2019 - as things had developed, the letter spoke particularly about enrolment, but there had been other matters raised to do with timing of tendering and also some considerations about pre-Primary.
The point is, the communication that went to parents said that that date had now become something that could not be accomplished, but the letter didn’t go on to offer any other date or framework or reference even to time. The result has been that, in the community around Le Marchant St. Thomas Elementary School, there’s a sense of people really being in an information void. I think it would be very helpful if the minister could speak with some sense of detail about where that project stands now, with particular reference to a possible time frame.
MR. CHURCHILL: Just quickly before I answer those questions, I do want to inform the previous member who was asking about the ratio for the early learning centres - we’ve confirmed that that ratio is one to ten which is consistent with the pre-Primary ratio. So, it is not one to nine. We’ve confirmed that with staff for certainty.
In terms of the member’s first comment, I also have a responsibility to engage in healthy debate and discourse in this House on behalf of my constituents and on behalf of the government and, if I feel it necessary as part of that discourse to defend certain policy positions and contextualize them, I feel that only contributes to the discourse of this House. I will continue to act in that vein.
In relation to LeMarchant St. Thomas Elementary School, as the member has pointed out, that project was moving forward until the school board informed the department that there was new information on enrolment projections that would indicate that there would be an additional 100 students enrolled in that school. That is substantial. That impacts the whole nature of the tender itself, and the project. The last thing we want to do when we build these facilities, that will serve multiple generations of students, is to build a facility that is not going to be suitable to the needs of that community.
I experienced a similar delay in Yarmouth where we had a new Yarmouth Elementary School that was scheduled to be built, I think, by this September and, because of new enrolment projections that came forward from the principal and the board, we actually had to delay that project in Yarmouth, too. The fact is that that delay has allowed us to have a tender that’s reflective of the needs of the students and the size of the facility.
I’ve experienced the same issue in my home community and I know that some people become frustrated when these projects are delayed but, relatively speaking, delaying a project for a year and allowing us to ensure that it’s the proper size to accommodate the student body, is well worth it, considering that these schools are going to be servicing these communities for 50 years plus, perhaps, you know, 30 years plus, depending on how quickly the facility erodes.
In this particular case, the enrolment projections that the board presented were substantial and they changed the whole scope of the project. That requires us to go back and do our due diligence, first to look at the numbers again to make sure that it’s the best data possible and that will help basically reframe the tender that goes out. That has delayed the project. I can’t give the member a timeline right now but I can tell you that this is a top priority for the government. It is a commitment that we’ve made to that community and it is a commitment that we will follow through on.
MR. BURRILL: Thank you. We were carrying on two parallel conversations, Mr. Chairman. I’ll say about the first conversation that it is my view that the people ought to be able to expect their Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development not to be so quite entirely well versed in the fluid use of the first person. That was the point I wished to make and I’ll move now to our second conversation.
About Le Marchant St. Thomas Elementary School, I don’t think anyone has said that it’s unreasonable that there should be project delays. Anyone associated with a major capital construction of any sort knows that there are all kinds of variables that can intervene.
The difficulty, it seems to me, for the Le Marchant St. Thomas community at the moment is that, given the situation that the minister has described about the fluid situation with enrolment, that having had a date in mind for a long period and the whole conversation having been fixed around that - there had been in place a certain kind of quid pro quo with that school’s community. The quid pro quo was that the students would move into the smaller, less amenable facility across the road while the construction proceeded; there would be a period when the circumstance wouldn’t be as good. But the quid pro quo would be that a better, newer school would be established and that this came with a date.
It seems to me fair for the provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to say, we must deal with a variable enrolment situation we had not anticipated and this is causing delays - we can’t get to September 19th as we had thought. It does not seem reasonable to me that the department ought not to follow that with saying something along the lines - and the sorts of variables that we are dealing with are the types of variables that in projects of this sort often would delay us x-amount of time, and we therefore would put before the community a new date that we are aiming for, of y.
I think if the conversation had been proceeding with this kind of shape, we wouldn’t have the sense - which I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the Le Marchant St. Thomas community at the moment, the department is no longer regarded with trust. I think this could be addressed. I think it ought to be addressed. I think the people are entitled to this information.
I don’t understand what it would be in the department’s position that would make it seem helpful or reasonable to not simply offer a new projected date, based on these fluid things that have taken place.
MR. CHURCHILL: The Opposition Leader has taken exception to the arguments that I have articulated in this House on behalf of our government and my constituents. I also take exception to some of his rhetoric as well in this House - particularly invoking the words of Jesus to attack the government in his Throne Speech - the same Jesus who I believe is credited as saying, “He who has not sinned cast the first stone.”
So if the member opposite would like to discuss the nature of our rhetoric or arguments, I’m happy to have that conversation here on the record with him. I also remember the NDP Government’s time in office and the decisions that they made. In fact, Le Marchant St. Thomas Elementary School was identified as a capital project priority during their entire tenure in office, and nothing happened during that time. That was four years of inaction by the NDP, who this member is now the Leader of. A government that the member was a voting member of, and nothing happened for four years on this project.
I’m sorry, we’re not going to rush forward with a project when we don’t know what the enrolment numbers are going to be, because they matter. When the board is telling us there are potentially 100 new students, that impacts the scope of the tender, that impacts the scope of the project in a very extreme way.
So we are going to take our time to analyze those numbers and we’re going to make sure that when we move forward on this project - a project that the NDP didn’t bother to push forward at all during their time in office - that we’re going to build a school that accommodates for the needs of that community. That is a commitment I’m making here today. That is a commitment that a previous minister has made. That is a commitment that we’ll be moving forward with.
MR. BURRILL: First, Mr. Chairman, this is a very serious allegation, to allege that one has manipulated the words of Jesus in a way that is inappropriate. If the minister has such an allegation to make, I would certainly wish to see it laid out with the precision such a serious allegation calls for so that it could be dealt with.
To return to the question of LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School, I do want to say first that, as I listened to discussions about our school system here in the Legislature, I find often that the minister and other ministers take as an initial response, often, to criticisms or concerns, go to a place of wishing to criticize what they see as the shortcomings of a government elected eight years ago. This is a matter of history. It is a matter of history on which we do not see eye to eye and I’m sure we could have profitable discussions about, but it is not the matter that is before us.
The matter before us, of course, is the challenge of the moment. On the subject of the challenge of the moment of LeMarchant St. Thomas Elementary School, I have not suggested in any way that fluidities of enrolment ought not to be accounted for, nor have I suggested that a capital project ought not sometimes to be delayed because of unpredictable fluidities of enrolment. I am only saying it would seem to me fair and reasonable that when we find a situation of this sort where a project timetable needs to be altered, that it would be constructive, that it would lead to the governments and the departments being held in higher esteem, it would increase the confidence of the community and the parents and families and students - if the government would simply say the delay that we have come to for these reasons is a delay that we think will last this many months and our new date is this period.
The minister has not answered my question. Why ought not the government to simply answer the people’s question, alright, but when?
MR. CHURCHILL: When we are able to answer that question, we will, but we need to understand the scope of the project, the size of the project, before we are able to do that. The timeline is informed by the scope. The scope is informed by the enrolment figures. We have to analyze those enrolment figures to see if they are accurate and that will help us move forward.
Once those timelines can be determined, we will share that with the member and with the community, of course. But to act in advance of having that information would be irresponsible on our part because we could be communicating a timeline that we cannot commit to or cannot execute on. That would not be serving any justice to the community that has been waiting for this school for a very long time.
What the member needs to understand is that we will be moving forward with this project. We have committed resources right now to assess the enrolment projections and that will inform the timeline as we move forward. As soon as we have that, the community will be informed directly, as we’ve been communicating with them thus far.
MR. BURRILL: I don’t think anyone has asked that the province act precipitously here. I don’t think there is any call from anywhere for precipitous action. I understand what the minister has just said about the need, given that the previous enrolment figures have not proven reliable, that the projections have not proven reliable and that the capital construction and design depend on having reliable figures. All of this is reasonable.
I understand what the minister has said, that we can’t proceed until we have done an analysis of the enrolment figures, but I come back to the same question which I think would restore the people’s confidence which has really been quite seriously squandered in that community over this subject. If the enrolment figures have to be analysed, when will this be done?
MR. CHURCHILL: To get back to a previous point and question that the member asked around which points of argument he has made that involved his religious views, I do want to articulate those. I have the transcript from the Throne Speech where the Opposition Leader said,
“If I may formulate this in the language of my own tradition, the biblical tradition, I am reminded of a place in the New Testament where Jesus is speaking about the essential responsiveness of the Creator to people’s needs. He says, ‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?’ This is exactly the posture of the present government. The people of Nova Scotia are asking for the bread, the fish, the social investments that will make it possible to pay the rent, to find a family doctor, to be able to improve your picture in the future by affordably going to school beyond Grade 12, to be able to find a job . . .” et cetera, et cetera.
This is exactly what I’m referring to, Mr. Speaker. For the member to think that he has a monopoly on this very important language to a lot of people, the language of faith, that many members of this House of Assembly are a part of - the Christian faith does not belong to that member. It belongs to every single practitioner of that faith in this House. For that member to invoke these words in such a way as he has, I find reprehensible.
Since he wanted to discuss the nature of our rhetoric in this House, I will discuss that with him. If he cares to, I would appreciate if he would retract these comments and perhaps apologize to those whom he may have offended.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I would like to bring this discussion that I have allowed, being fairly lenient throughout the last number of days, the casual back and forth in an effort for members to ask questions and be provided answers on the topic at hand. Today the topic at hand is the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. I would very much like us to get back to that point. I appreciate all the comments by both the member and minister.
I recognize the honourable Leader of the New Democratic Party to carry on with questions with regard to the Estimates of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Resolution No. E5.
MR. BURRILL: I certainly would thank the minister for sharing now for a second time, those fine words in the House. I’ll return to the subject of Le Marchant St. Thomas Elementary School. The matter before us stands unchanged. The community seeks an answer to the question, when?
At the moment, there is no framework. There is no suggestion of when there might be a framework. It’s not difficult to understand why people in the community begin to think that perhaps there will not be a new school, that perhaps something nefarious is taking place that we haven’t been informed of. All of this could be addressed and constructively dealt with simply by answering the people’s question, when?
If in fact another stage of information-gathering is required, another stage of information-analysis, then why not set out the time that the gathering and the analysis will require and then set out an anticipated date by which the project will be back on track. I can’t understand why it is in anyone’s interests - not the department’s interest, the government’s interest, or the school’s interest - not to provide the community some answer to the question, okay but when?
MR. CHURCHILL: Again, Mr. Chairman, I think that is a very important question that needs to be answered for the community. We do not have the necessary information currently to provide that answer. Once that information that will inform how long this process will take has been accumulated, we will communicate directly to that community as we have on every step of this project.
What I think is important for that member to recognize, is that we are committed to this project. It has been submitted as a capital priority from the school board, and in order to move forward, we just need to understand what the enrolment numbers are going to be, solidly, so we can build a school that accommodates for the needs of that community. This is very simple. We are in the process of collecting information, critical information to inform a decision that will cost tens of millions of dollars and that will impact the delivery of education for that community for multiple generations. That’s what we have to do.
Once we have that information, once we can provide an informed answer to that community, we will do so. What the member opposite is asking us to do is to provide an uninformed timeline. That’s irresponsible for us to do and I don’t understand why he keeps asking us to do that in these deliberations.
MR. BURRILL: Six words - when will the information be accumulated?
MR. CHURCHILL: What I can tell him is, it will be accumulated when our professional staff have had a chance to look at the enrolment figures, double check them, do their analysis on the scope of the project, and I can’t give the member a timeline on that right now because that would not be informed of me to do that. I’m telling you I can’t give a timeline because we don’t know when that work is going to be completed. We don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we’re moving forward as quickly as possible because we know this is a priority for the board and for that community and, again, I want to assure the member we are committed to that project.
MR. BURRILL: Surely, this is a situation that has come up before where fluidities around enrolment have caused delays in capital construction. Information has had to be gathered a second time, analyzed in a new way. Surely, we must know roughly how long this takes. I don’t understand despite the minister’s many answers, the key matter, why it is that we can’t fix some timeline on this.
I would not think that this is an area where the department has no experience. When this comes up, surely, it must be a job in which we could say, well, this is a one-month job, a three-month job, an eight-month job, a two-year job. We ought to have some grasp - one can surely understand why the community would have its confidence in the capacity, the project management capacity of the provincial government - I’ve heard it said in light of this, you know, this government couldn't organize a two-car funeral.
Surely, it’s not hard to understand why it is that people would have their confidence shaken when, a garden-variety problem in a project development comes up, and no one is able to say how long dealing with this matter is going to take. Surely, you ought to be able to give some kind of a timeframe, not the day, not 3 o’clock on Friday the whatevereth, but the general timeframe. Would the minister recognize that this would be a reasonable request from the community?
MR. CHURCHILL: Have you ever seen the movie, Groundhog Day, Mr. Chairman. I feel like I’m living out that movie currently in this House where I feel I have answered that question to the best of my ability. I can tell the member it will happen as soon as possible. I cannot give him a definitive timeline today. That’s not to say in the near future we won’t be able to communicate to the community and to him what that timeline will be, but what I will not do is provide a definitive timeline, which I cannot consciously do in good faith, because it might not prove to be accurate.
I feel like I’ve answered this question to the best of my ability. I will answer it in the same way. If the member chooses to use these next five minutes to ask me the same question over and over again, I’m happy to continue this wonderful Groundhog Day moment and, also, just continue to reinforce this project is going to move forward. We’re collecting information. We’re analyzing the enrolment figures and that will inform the timeline that we can accommodate for this.
I feel like that’s reasonable. I feel like the community would expect us to gather this information before we tell them when this project is going to be completed, when a tender is going to be issued, and I hope that the member opposite can understand the reason behind this.
MR. BURRILL: Well, just two observations, Mr. Chairman, the first to just return to our earlier conversation. There has been no suggestion on my part ever, to have a monopoly on the use or the appropriate use of the language that the minister referred to and took offence at, a; and b, I certainly hope it is not true that what we have heard in the way of answers from the minister this afternoon is, in fact, to the best of his ability. Thank you.
This concludes our contributions to this discussion, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will recognize the honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to provide some closing comments, if there are no other speakers.
MR. CHURCHILL: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I definitely have appreciated the eight hours, I believe, that we’ve been able to discuss important issues of education and the budget of education with my colleagues opposite. I now would like to move the motion on Estimates. (Interruptions) Okay, I have to fill three minutes before we pass that resolution, okay. Are there any quick questions that I can answer for members on this side?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The honourable minister has the opportunity to fill the next couple of minutes that are in the day, perhaps his staff, thanking people, offering other comments with regard to education.
MR. CHURCHILL: The member for Argyle-Barrington has asked a question regarding the Wedgeport school. I’ve had the great opportunity of touring that site. It is a school that is in desperate need of replacement. Notably, it is in disrepair and is not providing the level of education that we need for that community.
That has been listed as a priority from the CSAP and that is a priority that I as minister am personally very interested in giving full consideration to, especially considering what I’ve seen at that school. I know that has been a priority for the member opposite for quite some time. Of course, there are a lot of schools that are in need of repair, that are in need of replacement. It is a constant challenge for any government that sits on this side to fulfill the needs of all those communities, because we do have a limited purse of public dollars that we work with.
I believe in the process that we have. I believe it’s fair. What we are committed to doing is moving forward with the best plan possible, considering the financial capacity that we have because again, we take very seriously our fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers and to the future generations of Nova Scotians.
I’d also like to thank our wonderful staff who have worked very hard, those who are here, those who are in the gallery and back in the department, who worked very quickly to get answers to the members opposite in a timely manner. I believe we’ve answered every question that we were able to, for the most part. Of course, there’s other information that was requested that we’ll ensure that those members get.
Again, this is my first time in Estimates in the Chamber. It has been a real slice, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E5 stand?
Resolution E5 stands.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Mr. Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and that you report progress and beg leave to sit again.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 3:09 p.m.]