Two ways NS could have better schools for less money

For years, school enrollments in Nova Scotia have plummeted while school board budgets rose faster than inflation. Last winter, the Dexter Government asked boards to think about ways to operate with less. The boards and their colleagues in arms, the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, reacted with a Kill the Friendly Giant strategy.

In the end, the government imposed modest cuts, and the boards will continue to operate as they have for decades. It was a missed opportunity for reform.

Well, before the notion of school reform goes dormant for another five years, here are two ways school boards could work better for less money.

1. End the demeaning way we hire new teachers

If a freshly minted education graduate wants to make a career as a teacher in Nova Scotia, she must begin with three to five years of purgatory on the substitute teachers’ list. This often means moving back in with mom and dad and waiting by the phone each morning to see if she’ll be working that day at substandard pay. It means turning down other work so as to be available when the phone rings.

A young Cape Bretoner I know graduated from Mount Alison five years ago and approached the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board about a teaching position.

“You can go on the substitute teacher’s list,” he was told.

“I have a chance to teach full time in Mexico this coming year,” he replied, “How about if I do that for a year and then come back and apply for a job with the board? I’ll have learned a new language, gotten to know a new culture, and this will make me a better teacher.”

“That’s great,” the board official told him. “And when you come back, you can go on the substitute list.”

My young friend taught in Mexico for two years, then for three more in Colombia. He’ll never return to Cape Breton, because he had too much self-respect to mooch off his parents while the school board tossed him two or three days of work a week for three to five years.

The substitute teacher’s list operates as a negative sieve for potential teachers, culling those with the greatest ambition, energy, and self-respect. It is also rife with opportunities for corruption, because those four years on the substitute list offer no end of opportunities to favor family members, friends, and flatterers.

No other organization of comparable size hires its staff in this retrograde manner. School boards should adopt modern personnel practices, subjecting candidates to objective testing, rigorous interviews, careful reference checks, and probationary hiring. That’s how smart organizations hire the best people, and if students need anything, it’s the very best teachers we can attract.

2. Get superintendents, middle managers, and non-teaching principals out of the union.

Many Nova Scotians would be surprised to learn that superintendents, directors, sub-system supervisors, principals, vice-principals, department heads, and various consultants and coordinators working on secondment in the Department of Education all belong to the Teachers’ Union and are subject to the collective agreement.

Do I even have to spell out how completely crazy this is? Is there another organization in the western world that operates this way? The Superintendent is the Chief Executive Officer of the school board. Does the CEO of Bell Canada belong to the Communications, Energy, and Paper Workers’ Union? Does Donald Sobey belong to the Food and Commercial Workers’ Union? Does Joe Shannon carry a membership card in the Teamsters’ Union? The very idea is insane.

This cozy interlocking membership doesn’t simply serve students and parents badly, it’s equally a rip-off for teachers. A teacher needs a union that will honestly represent her interests when conflicts arise with a principal, curriculum supervisor, or superintendent. The school board, parents, and students need to know that the people managing the school system will not kowtow to the union. When the same people manage the union and the school system, no one can have confidence.

Note that neither of these reforms aims directly at saving money. But one would insure that the best possible people take on the most important jobs in the school system, the jobs at the heart of the system’s purpose. The other would ensure that managers manage free from relationships fraught with conflicting interests. Both reforms would make our schools run more efficiently, and that would save the system money.

These reforms won’t happen any time soon, because they require a government with the gumption to take on the union in a what would surely be a tough fight. The Dexter Government may not stray far from the center of the political road, but it has shown no appetite for taking on its traditional benefactors in the labor movement. The government underestimates the extent to which rural Nova Scotians are ready for a government that will cut the school boards’ garments to fit the cloth.

Faroe Islands notebook

Friends of Contrarian know that in recent years I’ve had several occasions to visit the Faroe Islands, a quirky beautiful demi-country* located halfway between Iceland and Scotland. If you sliced Gros Morne National Park into 18 pieces and plunked them into the North Atlantic, you’d have a pretty good facsimile.

With barely 49,000 people, the Faroes don’t often hit the news, so my ears tend to perk up when they do. A piece by BBC travel writer Tim Ecott on the network’s website offers a charming nugget. While sailing from the Faroese capital of Torshavn to the island of Nolsoy, Ecott was struck by the plump Northern Fulmars that flew alongside. A crew member named Joel explained:

They follow the fishing boats, so close you can just reach out and grab them. They’re delicious, but I won’t be catching any this summer. When you grab them they have a tendency to vomit—and they carry bacteria that are dangerous for pregnant women. And my girlfriend is expecting a baby.

Wrote Ecott: “It is the kind of thing people in Faroes need to know.”

* The Faroes are a largely autonomous protectorate of Denmark.

The southern sky speeded up

The European Southern Observatory‘s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, a 2,635 m high mountain in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, combines the light from four fixed optical telescopes equipped with 8.2 meter (27 foot) lenses with that from four moveable auxiliary telescopes equipped with 1.8 meter (6 foot) lenses to produce images of the southern sky with a resolution of one milliarcsecond. This means it could distinguish the gap between the headlights of a Ford pickup parked on the Moon (if they had Fords on the Moon, and no winter parking ban).

The observatory’s José Francisco Salgado and Stephane Guisard have produced a gorgeous time-lapse video of the VLT’s images:

Direct video link at 720p resolution (recommended, but slower to load). Direct video link at 360p resolution (loads faster).

Note that all images were taken at night. The bright intervals were caused by moonlight.

H/T: Steve Manley

A Halifax resident writes her councilor – more feedback

Former health inspector Bill Bailey writes:

Kudos to Lindsay. Unfortunately, because politicians’ skin is made from elephant hide, they will probably take it as a compliment.

And a Halifax reader notes that this week’s Rona flyer features “eco friendly” Milorganite, at $7.79 for a 16.3 kg bag, “for better results NATURALLY.”

As noted previously, Milorganite is the great-granddaddy of recycled, composted municipal sludge. So it’s OK to spread Milwaukee’s venerable composted sludge on Halifax vegetable gardens, but heaven forfend we use Halifax’s modern stuff on municipal flower beds.

And one more. Colin May writes:

Reminds me of the arguments against incineration  20 years ago: “Heavy metals, blah, blah, blah….risk analysis sucks, blah, blah, blah…. I belive it is bad…”

  • Science is Good when they discuss global warming.
  • Science is Bad when it comes to sewage treatment and incineration.
  • Science is Bad when discussing fluoride in our water.

Just face up to the fact that 10-15 percent of the populace will oppose almost any proposal. Politicians should just ignore them because to do otherwise will only encourage the perpetual worriers whenever something new comes along.

In my opinion breathing is dangerous for your health. It is the last thing a person does before dying and therefore we should all stop breathing. Statistics prove my assertion.

A Halifax resident writes her councilor – feedback

Contrarian friend Cliff White doesn’t share Lindsay Brown’s impatience with HRM Council’s decision to spend $50,000 studying the safety of fertilizer derived from the municipality’s sewage treatment plants.

Among other things, she mentions studies that go back eighty years. I’d suggest that studies going back even half that time wouldn’t be testing even half the chemicals, toxins, and metal compounds likely to be found in today’s sewage. Since any cursory search of the literature will show that not all of these products are removed at the treatment plant, three questions arise:

  • First, how effective are our local sewage plants are in extracting heavy metals, toxins and other chemicals before it becomes sludge and then fertilizer?
  • Second, what are the national and provincial standards for levels of these products in fertilizers?
  • Finally, are these standards adequate to protect both the environment and human health?

A quick search of the literature will show that different countries have widely different standards in this regard, suggesting that this is a legitimate area for concern. Given the reasonable scientific concern regarding sewage sludge I don’t think a study of the local stuff is unwarranted.

In an earlier letter, Cliff forwarded information he extracted from a 2009 US EPA Report.

The sampling effort collected sewage sludge from 74 randomly selected publicly owned treatment works in 35 states. Samples were collected in 2006 and 2007. The TNSSS Technical Report provides results for 145 analytes, including:

  • four anions (nitrite/nitrate, fluoride, water-extractable phosphorus),
  • 28 metals,
  • four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
  • two semi-volatiles,
  • 11 flame retardants,
  • 72 pharmaceuticals, and
  • 25 steroids and hormones.

Some analytes were found in all 84 samples, while others were found in none or only a few of the sewage sludge samples.

After the jump, more extracts from the report, detailing the number of samples in which various chemicals were found. That list will probably scare some readers. Certain environmentalists like to cite such lists precisely because they sound scary, and because they lend a false aura of scientific credibility to their arguments. Such lists are all but meaningless without two essential pieces of information:

  • In what concentrations were the chemicals found? (For many chemicals, minuscule amounts are both routine and harmless.)
  • What level of exposure to people, plants, or animals would result if the sludge were used for its intended purpose? (How much actually gets to people is the real worry, and Cliff’s list tells you nothing about that.)

To answer these questions, scientific risk assessors use a model known as source, pathway, receptor. In the case of a person who eats carrots grown in soil treated with fertilizer derived from composted sewage sludge, the sludge is the source, eating a carrot is the pathway, and the person is the receptor.

For each chemical, the risk assessor will determine the amount present in the sludge, and the amount that might make its way into a carrot and then into a person who eats the carrot. The risk depends on the actual exposure a person might experience. These calculations typically use ultra-conservative assumptions: the receptor is a developing child; the child eats only vegetables grown in soil treated with the fertilizer; Large amounts of fertilizer are used.

This is exactly the kind of analysis used to set allowable levels of Cliff’s scary sounding chemicals. Find the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment (CCME) report on this process here [pdf]. Regular sampling confirms that composted Halifax sewage sludge meets these standards. Dozens of municipalities have safely used sewage sludge for decades, with less advanced equipment that that used in HRM. And let us not forget, Halifax’s sewage treatment plants solved a real environmental menace–the dumping of raw sewage into Halifax Harbour.

For all these reasons, real environmentalists should be delighted, and HRM Council should not waste public money pandering to anti-science zealots who will never be persuaded on this issue. Continue reading A Halifax resident writes her councilor – feedback

The hidden cost of farmed fish

As ocean stocks dwindle, humanity turns increasingly to farmed fish. But does this actually make matters worse? Graphic artist Nigel Upchurch thinks so:

[Video link]

It matters which farmed fish you’re eating, as some species consume more than others. Salmon is the worst, as this table, from a paper by Albert G.J. Tacon and Marc Metian of the University of Hawaii, demonstrates:

The red arcs represent wild fish inputs, the yellow arcs farmed fish output. The numbers inside the circles show the ratio between the two. Numbers greater than one mean more wild fish is consumed than farmed fish produced. Upchurch provides additional fine print.

H/T: Nathan Yau

River Explainer

flood-250CAs the 2011 flood season ramped up across the US and Canada,’s tech blogger, Alexis Madrigal. found himself wondering how the Mississippi River system works. So he produced an explainer that lays out the complex combination of natural and human forces that create, and attempt to control, the inevitable natural process of river flooding.

What is the Mississippi River? It’s not actually a silly question. The Mississippi no longer fits the definition a river as “a natural watercourse flowing towards an ocean, a lake, a sea, or another river.” Rather, the waterway has been shaped in many ways, big and small, to suit human needs. While it maybe not be tamed, it’s far from wild — and understanding the floods that are expected to crest in Louisiana soon means understanding dams, levees, and control structures as much as rain, climate, and geography. From almost the moment in the early 18th century when the French started to build New Orleans, settlers built levees, and in so doing, entered into a complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States.

Find the rest of Madrigal’s explainer here. Those wanting a longer, more literary account can turn to John McPhee’s classic New Yorker piece Atchafalaya, about controlling the Mississippi.

A Halifax resident writes her councillor

JerryBlumenthal-150CContrarian has previously voiced astonishment that environmentalists — more accurately crackpots posing as environmentalists — would oppose a recycling project that transforms harmful municipal waste into a valuable organic fertilizer here and here. We’re also chagrinned the Halifax media’s gullibility and lack of interest in actual scientific information about the topic. Now, a North End resident has voiced similar incredulity in a letter to District 11 councillor Jerry Blumenthal:

Dear Mr. Blumenthal,

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why Haligonians keep comparing their city to tiny Moncton, but now I’m beginning to get it. And I’m not referring to Moncton’s apparently inexplicable ability to host major concerts.

Halifax has set aside $100,000 to study whether its own biosolids, produced according to a plan established at least five years ago, are safe. All of the hundreds of similar studies done in the past 80 or more years are evidently insufficient, no doubt because they didn’t benefit from the special scienctific perspective available only in HRM. And it seems there is no obligation for opponents to biosolids to produce any reputable science supporting their position. All this because staff made the mistake of mixing the material with wet compost and causing a stink in Clayton Park. We’re spending $100,000 to investigate a bad smell in Clayton Park that has come and gone.

Meanwhile, Moncton is selling its biosolids by the bag back to the citizens who generated it in the first place as a fertilizer branded “Gardner’s Gold.” Even better, they’re getting the equivalent of $40 a tonne for it, roughly four times what HRM gets from farmers still brave enough to buy its material.

At this point, convention requires me to make a bitter reference to the Great Cat Bylaw Debate, or HRM’s inability to join the rest of the province in mandating clear garbage bags, but I’m just too tired.

Lindsay Brown