New Brunswick Liberal government seeks to 'optimize' number of schools

FREDERICTON – New Brunswick’s finance minister promised Wednesday to carefully decide how public funds will be spent, including expenditures on schools, as he tabled the capital budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Roger Melanson delivered a budget allocating $597 million in capital project spending but specific details will have to wait until each department presents their individual estimates.

The bulk of the capital budget — $409.5 million — goes to construction, maintenance and repair of transportation infrastructure such as highways and bridges.

Almost $96 million is allocated for maintenance and construction of K-12 schools.

“These investments will lead to operational savings by optimizing the number of schools that support our student population,” Melanson told the legislature.

He was later asked by reporters whether that means schools would close, but he said the education minister would have more to say when estimates are presented.

Tory finance critic Blaine Higgs said some schools might have to be closed, citing the province’s decline in student enrolment.

Elementary and high school enrolment in the province dropped from 120,600 in 2002-03 to 102,597 in 2011-12, according to figures from Statistics Canada and the New Brunswick Education Department.

Peter Fullerton, president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association, said he hopes any decisions on schools will consider factors such as class size, their importance to rural communities and travel time for students.

“It has to be more than just money,” Fullerton said. “There has to be sound educational decisions made and it’s not just based on financial constraints of the province.”

He said he hopes each school would be looked at on an individual basis.

Of the $597 million set aside in the capital budget, $114.6 million will come from the Liberal government’s plan to spend $900 million over six years to improve infrastructure.

Melanson said funding under the program is intended to help with projects such as the proposed Energy East Pipeline, which would move western crude to as far east as Saint John, N.B., and the proposed Sisson tungsten mine north of Fredericton.

The budget also commits $5.6 million for universities and community colleges while $60.2 million is allocated for maintenance and improvement of health care infrastructure.

Melanson said there’s a need to plan for the long term and work has begun on developing a 10-year capital infrastructure plan.

Wednesday’s capital budget also includes figures for the next three years, with $709 million for 2016-17, $636 million for 2017-18 and $632 million in 2018-19.