By Richard Bell
Education Minister Karen Casey’s late January announcement of plans to build a new high school in Spryfield dashed the dreams of proponents of replacing the aging Eastern Shore District High School (ESDH), the oldest high school in HRM. The announcement dramatically illustrated last fall’s critique of the department by the Auditor General.
Casey announced that the province would be building a new school to replace J. S. Illsey in Spryfield, despite the fact that the Halifax School Board had specifically voted on March 30, 2016 against recommending the replacement of this high school.
“People are frustrated and angry,” said Jean McKenna, head of the Community Campus Vision Association (CCVA), which has been lobbying for a new ESDH for several years.
The Halifax Regional School Board submitted a list of its recommendations for schools to be repaired or replaced to the province last spring. But on its list for 2016, for the first time the Board added a recommendation for replacing ESDH altogether, voting for an amendment by Eastern Shore School Board member Bridget Boutilier to change the recommendation for ESDH to “New School or Addition & Alteration.”
This Board list of recommendations is not in any priority order. Recommendations from all the province’s school boards go into the Education Department, which in turn makes the final decisions about which recommendations to fund.
However, the Education Department’s process for making these decisions is notoriously opaque. In a fall 2016 report, the provincial Auditor General issued a scathing critique of the Education Department’s entire school planning process. Here are some of the devastating conclusions of the AG’s report:
"The Department does not have documented processes to guide capital planning and decision-making practices are ad hoc and unsupported. This results in inconsistent and potentially poor decisions, as was evident in our testing.
"We are particularly concerned by decisions which appear to contradict information on which areas are most in need of new schools or significant renovations."
McKenna said that CCVA had already had a two-hour meeting with Eastern Shore MLA Kevin Murphy and School Board member Boutilier to express their unhappiness with the province’s decision.
Replacing the high school was included in Murphy’s controversial plan to create a “community campus” that would also have included a replacement for The Birches nursing home and a new sports facility. McKenna emphasized that CCVA has made it clear to Murphy that the group is now focused on getting a new high school, having come to regard the bureaucratic hurdles of the campus concept as making it almost impossible to ever get a new high school.
She also noted that CCVA now believes that instead of just replacing ESDH, the province should combine ESDH with Gaetz Brook Middle School, which is also aging badly. Councillor David Hendsbee supports this idea. In an interview, Hendsbee said, “I think it’s time for a new superschool to combine ESDH and Gaetz Brook, but it should remain in the village core. There’s a site right there between the 357 and behind the rail station that I personally think is ideal.”
Murphy, who is planning to meet with the Premier and Minister Casey, told the Cooperator that he was also interested in the idea of a new school combining ESDH and Gaetz Brook, and perhaps even including facilities for Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial students. “CCVA has done a fantastic job in doing research and building the case,” Murphy said. “My goal for the entire Eastern Shore is to get us the biggest bank for the buck. I’m optimistic that we’re going to come up with something very special and unique.”