The $20 million being poured into a darkened mill in Cape Breton could keep the lights on in many rural schools. In a recent column in The Chronicle Herald, I argue that it’s unconscionable to see public money poured into a half-empty plant that’s not producing a dime’s worth of paper, especially when around the corner, schools are being closed for want of money. [Note: This post has been edited to include the text of the article rather than a link to the online article.]
Paper plant’s ‘hot idle’ could apply to schools
Along with “salty fog,” now a synonym for silly excuses, thanks to Nova Scotia Power, we can add “hot idle” to the lexicon of Nova Scotia tomfoolery.
“Hot idle” is the new government euphemism for pouring good money down the drain.
More than $20 million has now been granted to keep the Point Tupper paper mill in “hot idle” during the sale process, which could drag on until fall.
Last fall, when hopes for a quick sale were high, the province allocated $5 million to keep the mill idling.
On Friday, the premier topped up the “hot idle” fund with another $5.8 million. To keep the mill ready for resale, NewPage Port Hawkesbury Corp. may also draw on $10 million that was pledged by government to the mill’s former owner, Stora Enso.
We are paying the $20-million tab so that the company that failed to run the mill profitably can salvage as much value as possible from the sale.
The government is justifying the cost in the name of job security and buying time while the new owner-in-waiting negotiates deals to reduce labour, fibre and power costs.
I can’t argue with helping our fellow citizens whose jobs depend on the mill reopening.
But it’s unconscionable to see public money poured into a half-empty plant that’s not producing a dime’s worth of paper, especially when around the corner, schools are being closed for want of money.
This month the Strait Regional school board voted to permanently close three schools, including one in Evanston, just east of the mill.
Why not put small rural schools that are slated for closure on “hot idle” instead?
Despite the apparent drain on school board budgets and the fact of declining enrolments, there is a business case to be made for idling small rural schools so they can remain the engines of their communities in good times and bad.
First, the issue of higher student costs in small schools can be knocked on the head with research from the United States, which shows smaller schools cost less per graduating student because of their higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates, relative to larger schools.
Second, evidence is being amassed by advocates for small schools in Canada and the U.S. that shows positive links between the presence of a small school, availability of local employment, and the ability of the municipal tax base to fund public infrastructure.
Third, if we want to increase the population of skilled immigrants in rural communities, we should stop closing rural schools.
The millions being spent on the darkened mill could keep the lights on in many rural schools. In fact, they would more than cover the entire budget cut announced for school boards this year.
The rationale for idling schools and the mill is grounded in the same hope — that in time these rural communities, like the paper sector, may turn around.
But if we must choose, then maintaining rural communities by subsidising small schools seems better than oiling idle machines.
© 2012 Rachel Brighton/Finest Point Periodicals Limited. This post was published March 18, 2012, in The Chronicle Herald newspaper as one of my weekly “Just Business” columns.