Paul MacNeill- Against the tide

Once again the MacLauchlan government is stumbling under the weight of self-inflicted wounds, this time fallout of a predictably visionless education reorganization calling for the closure of five schools and long overdue urban rezoning.

In a replay of past efforts, the Liberal bureaucracy is recommending cutting extremities while refusing to look for innovative ways to deliver a world class education (which PEI does not provide). But this time around government may pay a high price for its narrow vision.

The public does not trust the process established by the premier. Consultation involves holding more than meetings. It means taking earmuffs off so you can actually hear what is being said. It means stepping out of your silo.

The next phase in the drive to closure, under the direction of the three member Public School Branch board of directors, is no better. The board is chaired by the Deputy Minister of Education. At best it creates a perception of conflict of interest. Few believe the deputy will go against fellow bureaucrats or the Minister of Education, her boss, who has all but endorsed the report.

What was delivered last week is the institutional bias toward a bigger, centralized and standardized education system. It is a structure that is failing our children, our communities and our economy.

But the report also corners Premier Wade MacLauchlan in a far more troubling dichotomy. He proclaims to understand the importance of rural revitalization but as premier creates a process that pits one community against another and accepts a report from an education bureaucracy that stubbornly refuses to look at options it does not endorse.

Government knew it was dynamite.

The report was not even tabled before government’s spin machine set in motion. In an attempt to distract the public and media, it first announced the sale of the former McCain french fry plant. Then as opposition grew – including from two West Prince Liberal MLAs - the administration rushed to announce the ‘sale’ of the Mill River Resort including golf course, hotel, campground and water fun park.

If the premier thought the announcements would convince rural Islanders he has their back, he thought wrong.

It got worse.

The Mill River sale smells of a sweetheart boondoggle. The new owner, legendary businessman Don MacDougall, will pay $500,000 for the whole lot. He is guaranteeing to invest $1 million more. In return the province will invest $7 million over 12 years to cover operational losses (artificially inflated due to traditional patronage staffing levels) and capital investments. If you are in the tourism or accommodation business there’s a high probability you are not happy with government’s decision to pick a winner by using tax dollars to fund direct competition.

Government will argue MacDougall is the only operator to respond to a request for proposal. We don’t know what interest there would be had government said it will pour $7 million plus into the resort after the sale.

If you are leadership of the Mi’kmaq Confederacy, you are insulted. The premier has built close ties with native leaders, but ignored constitutional requirements to engage in sincere consultation when divesting Crown Property, in this case roughly 400 acres.

The argument for the sale is West Prince needs a tourism anchor. It is compelling. The resort is dated and struggles to attract visitors. Regardless of investment it will have an uphill road. Rural resorts were attractive 30 years ago. Outside of Cabot Links in Cape Breton there are few success stories. Ownership with ties to the community is an important asset.

But the public needs to see all details, including the contract and specifics of all taxpayer involvement, before final judgement is rendered.

The last week was not a good one for Wade MacLauchlan. Coming weeks will determine whether the premier puts substance behind the rhetoric that rural PEI matters. It boggles the mind that Georgetown is on the hit list for closure simply because the Department of Education failed to do its job and enforce school boundaries.

How much is the premier willing to risk? Government’s handling of education could derail an attempt by seven eastern communities to forge a regional governance structure. A growing number view education’s bias against rural communities and wonder why support a major municipal reshuffling that is championed by the provincial government as a model for the rest of the province. Ultimately both questions boil down to trust in the MacLauchlan government.

Small schools afford an opportunity to create unique solutions, but the Department of Education is tone deaf. It’s not interested in the community hub model. It’s not interested in maximizing technology. It is only interested in the narrow view promoted by a bureaucracy that delivers mediocrity.

If the premier believes in his economic and population plan he has only one decision to make and that is an immediate stop to the school closure proposal.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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