Why school budgets keep growing

Kill the Friendly Giant.

That’s how Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak describes the response of school boards and the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union when the Dexter government sought ideas for reducing the education budget.

That’s the tactic the CBC used a few years ago when the government announced a cut in its budget: The cuts would force it to cancel Canada’s favorite children’s show. Parents and children rose up, and the cuts got cut.

As former education bureaucrat Wayne Fiander wrote to Contrarian recently, “the school boards and the teachers’ union… know this play in their sleep.”

In the face of these tactics, the province held the boards to something better than a draw. Budgets will fall slightly in recognition of plummeting enrolments. If you want to know why this is hard, look no further than the following map:

holy angels to sydney academy

Point A is Holy Angels High, a beloved but decrepit, energy-guzzling, half-empty, structure that’s currently the subject of an overwrought save-our-school campaign, featuring the usual litany of weeping schoolgirls, outraged parents, and posturing politicians. Point B is Sydney Academy, a more modern and efficient, but likewise half-empty high school 12 blocks away.

Two half-empty school, 12 blocks apart. Isn’t the solution obvious? Yet MLA Gordie Gosse and many others who ought to know better are lobbying the province furiously to keep both open and operating. Doing so would amount to mismanagement bordering on larceny, but how many times can governments be expected to face down a public conditioned to believe it can drink champagne but pay for beer?

When the latest effort to “save” Holy Angels came a cropper on the hard reality of costs, Cape Breton Victoria District School Board Chair Lorne Green tried to blame local contractor Danny Ellis. Ellis had offered to buy the school from the Sisters of Charity, and lease it back to the board on what looks to this outsider like a barely break-even basis, with the board picking up maintenance and operating costs.

That wasn’t good enough for Green, who told the Chronicle-Herald’s Mary Ellen MacIntyre: “It’s like you walking in and saying ‘I’ll save your school for you’ but you’re doing nothing for (the students) — it’s all for yourself.”

I happen to know Ellis, who has a long record of community spirited projects, including the conversion of a former school in Whitney Pier into an active and much-used centre for local business. It’s no surprise the board doesn’t want to be on the hook for operating and maintenance costs on a 55-year-old building that has outlive its usefulness, but it should have the gumption to say so, instead of blaming Ellis for not taking on a problem that isn’t his.