Move along, Nova Scotia, nothing to see here

Our friend the curmudgeon has been quiet for a while, but the spectre of Detroit’s decayed grandeur propelled him to the keyboard:

Move along, Nova Scotians. There’s nothing for you to see in the grotesque collapse of the city of Detroit. Keep your focus on rural development.

Don’t worry about Halifax. It’s wealthy beyond imagination. There’s nothing wrong with its downtown that arresting a few panhandlers won’t fix. Avoid tall buildings; spread out instead. Never mind that only seven of 16 HRM electoral districts are genuinely urban. You can count on the other nine councillors to keep the urban centre healthy and attractive to outsiders from around the world.

It’s far better to resist the global migration to cities, with their greater opportunity and environmental sustainability. Every effort should be made to help country folk maintain their invaluable lifestyles. God forbid their children should leave home to seek their fortunes, knowing they’ll be welcomed back only if they can be judged as failures.

For the genteel squire, let not the scourge of renewable energy destroy their sight-lines, and nay, let not the gypsum for their summer houses come from local mines. Let them fertilize their hobby fields of elephant garlic with wholesome raw animal feces. May they stand firm against the loathsome tide of treated excrement from city dwellers.

Oh, and beware come-from-aways trying to turn derelict buildings into businesses. They know nothing about local ways.


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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.

Howard defends NDP carbon subsidy

EPSTEIN_S_Robb.jpg You almost had to feel sorry for Howard Epstein as he struggled to defend the NDP’s $28 million carbon subsidy at last night’s all-party environmental debate, held at Dalhousie Medical School.

Howard is a lifelong energy policy wonk. He knows it would be asinine to use millions in taxpayer dollars to create incentives for Nova Scotians to consume more coal-fired electricity. But alas, that’s the heart of the NDP’s energy strategy, driven no doubt by focus groups showing “ordinary” Nova Scotians are pissed off about rising power bills. Said Howard:

The price signal is important, but you can’t ignore the poor. You can’t say, “I want all forms of energy to be more expensive to discourage consumption, oh, and by the way I’m also concerned about the poor.” The price signal [from the NDP power bill subsidy] will work its way down and give the poorest Nova Scotians the greatest benefit.

Bullshit. Fuddleduddle. The benefits of the NDP carbon subsidy will be fall overwhelmingly on middle and upper income earners who most need the price signal to curb their consumption. It’s a scandalous misallocation of scarce resources for coping with the greatest environmental challenge of our era.

Subsidizing ‘the gravest threat to our environment’

lingan2“The gravest threat to our environment is climate change,” says the NDP election platform. So why is Darrell Dexter promising to subsidize electricity consumption by $28 million? That’s what it will cost taxpayers to remove the provincial share of the HST from electricity bills.

Seventy-five percent of Nova Scotia’s electricity is created by burning coal, the dirtiest fuel we have. Subsidize wind power, sure, or tidal, or mass transit. But a $28-million tax break for burning dirty coal at a time when climate change is “the gravest threat to our environment?” That’s cynical and irresponsible. Worse, it assumes voters are stupid, or selfish. Or both.

Wonder what Howard Epstein makes of all this?

[Disclosure: 1n 2008, I helped write the province’s Renewed Energy Strategy and its Climate Change Action Plan.]