By Richard Bell
The struggle over finding a site for the long-ago-promised replacement for Eastern Shore District High hit the floor of the Legislature on Friday, October 25, at the same time that the long-delayed “technical evaluation” of the current ESDH site is finally underway.
During question period, NDP Education Critic Claudia Chender asked Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill why EECD had eliminated the participation of the public in the site selection process.
The absence of public consultation has dogged Churchill since he first announced that there would be a new site selection process in the spring of 2018. More than a year went by before EECD released this new policy. The old regional site selection process had an entire section devoted to public consultation. Churchill had been adamant from the very beginning that he wanted a policy that would not allow public consultation to slow down the site selection process. In keeping with this emphasis on speed, the new site selection process has no mention of public consultation.
Chender pointed out the inconsistencies in Churchill’s statements to Musquodoboit Harbour Chamber of Commerce president Kent Smith. Before the release this summer of the new site selection process, Churchill had told Smith that there would be opportunities for public consultation, but the final document had no such provision. She also noted that the average consultation period under the old process was around 6 months.
Churchill never answered Chender’s question, falling back instead onto his claim that the old process had been too “convoluted” because it was not driven by the “technical evaluation” of sites. His new policy was based on conducting these “technical evaluations,” although the new site selection document does not describe what the components of an acceptable technical evaluation might be.
Chender then pointed out that through a Freedom of Information request, the NDP caucus had received an email from May 2018 email regarding ESDH saying, “Site planning already done for this one [ESDH replacement],” including an attached concept plan. She asked if the Minister could confirm that a decision has already been made. Churchill denied that a decision had been made.
In an October 25 press release, the NDP caucus noted that the NDP had “tabled legislation that would require more transparency in school site selection, including establishing a school capital construction committee and creating a policy that would require government to consider social, economic, environmental and cultural connections of the community when choosing the location of public facilities.”
The Role of TIR in the Process
Under the new site selection process, the responsibility for conducting the site evaluation falls (for reasons that are not clear) on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR).
In an October 17 email, Gerad Jessome, the executive director of TIR’s Building Project Services, explained that the technical evaluation process was underway, and would be completed in two or three months, meaning that EECD could make a decision about the suitability of the existing site some time in early 2020. Jessome was responding to an email from Jean McKenna, who leads the Community Campus Vision Association and who has long lobbied for an ESDH replacement.
Jessome writes, “We are currently investigating the existing Eastern Shore District High site located on West Petpeswick Road as per as EECD's site selection process. A site investigation includes geotechnical, environmental, water and traffic studies. All these studies/investigations are underway now.
“We expect a drill rig will be onsite in mid November to obtain soil samples to complete the geotechnical report. When these studies are complete we will prepare an overall site assessment report along with a recommendation for our client, EECD.
“After their review they will provide direction on how we proceed. Our investigation work will be completed within the next 2 to 3 months. The final decision regarding the feasibility of the existing school site will follow after EECD completes their review.”