How can Halifax become an economically vibrant, self-sufficient hub city?
Edifices and studentsBy Paul W. Bennett | Sep 7, 2010
While families scramble to get ready for the first day of school, Halifax Regional School Board staff will be busy packing boxes for a big move. On October 1, the HRSB central office relocates to a palatial new headquarters at 7 Spectacle Lake in the City of Lakes Corporate Business Park. While the Nova Scotia government preaches financial restraint and student enrolments decline, the province’s flagship school board will spend $900,000 more a year in operating costs to house its central administration.
When questioned about the dramatic increase in expenses, School Board Chair Irvine Carvery defended the move. Moving to Spectacle Lake means centralizing staff and closing the Cole Harbour office. “It’s going to be more expensive,” he told AllNovaScotia.com, but bringing all staff under one roof is worth the money… The move does not impact whatsoever on the services and programs we provide to our students.”
Pouring almost $1 million more a year into your headquarters raises all kinds of red flags. With shrinking student numbers, tightening budgets, and so many crying school-level needs, it’s a hard sell. A closer scrutiny of the HRSB’s costly move from the old Dartmouth City Hall at Alderney Gate to Burnside simply does not support the Board Chair’s contention. More significantly, it’s an acid test of the Board’s real educational priorities.
The Board will lease expanded office space (73,000 square feet) from Armour Group for $832,600 each year, plus $644,360 in additional costs (including electricity and property taxes), for a net annual cost of $1.5 million. Compare that with current total costs of $618,000: $338,000 for Alderney Gate and $280,000 for Cole Harbour.
Although the Board had to leave Alderney Landing because of an expired lease and rising rents, moving to Spectacle Lake wasn’t the only option. The old Saint Patrick’s School in North End Halifax was available but the Board ruled it out. Decentralizing operations and converting surplus schools was not even considered, even though many urban Canadian boards have been taking that route since the cost-conscious 1990s.
Spending more on central administration will impact upon the classroom, contrary to the recent claim. Total HRSB revenues for 2010–11 will be $399,151,900, up $15.9 million (4.5 per cent) since 2008–09. During that period, school administration costs have continued to climb. While teacher salaries have risen 4.75 per cent, non-teacher salaries have jumped 14.5 per cent. New funding will be provided this year for two African-Nova Scotian student initiatives but for little else.
Shifts in spending for 2010–11 demonstrate that projected cuts will impact directly upon students. The coming year will see significant expenditure reductions in student services, program support services ($877,420) and special education ($151,600). Cutting $466,400 from the Supplementary Fund Budget also translates into reductions in secretaries (10), educational program assistants (five) and additional teachers (10).
The Board contends that the new Central Administration office cost overruns can easily be funded out of the HRSB’s mysterious nest egg. With the Department of Education’s blessing, the move and capital costs will be paid out of a $4.2-million accumulated surplus fund. No one has publically explained how and why those surpluses exist.
The Board can find funding for new headquarters but critical student needs go unmet within the system. Money is no object when it comes to standardized testing, data gathering, and “literacy coaches” for every school. Yet special-education services and elementary art programs are expendable.
Closing the educational gap should rank higher than erecting edifices on the Board’s priority list. The Nova Scotia Child
and Youth Strategy, developed in response to Merlin Nunn’s Commission of Inquiry (January 2007), pointed the way. Addressing the root causes of youth crime requires a much greater commitment of resources. Simply setting-up, then underfunding the Schools Plus and O2 (Options and Opportunities) programs is not good enough for the province’s lead board. It’s now clear that other boards, such as the Chignecto Central and South Shore boards, have made much better use of those programs.
The Halifax Board seems to have little time for community partnerships. Youth Pathways and Transitions is being implemented in low-key fashion. The tremendously successful Pathways to Education stay-in-school program, inspired by Toronto’s Carolyn Acker, is coming to Central Spryfield but it originated outside the school system.
The move comes at a particularly strange time. For the past six months, the Board has been engulfed in the Ken Fells fiasco. At a time when public scrutiny has never been higher, the Board is relocating to far-off Burnside. The big move not only costs more, it also removes the Board farther away from daily contact with the people.
“Afterthought” is an opinion column, featuring guest contributors. The opinions featured are solely those of the writer.
The director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax, Paul W. Bennett specializes in education-policy research and analysis. www.schoolhouseconsulting.ca
Halifax Regional School Board member Dave Finlayson posted a response to this column on his website.