04/11/2012 01:30 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia puts halt to school board's plan to lay off all of its librarians

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's education minister ordered a school board Wednesday to halt its plans to lay off all of its librarians, a day after the premier said the job cuts were an attempt by the board to embarrass his government.

Ramona Jennex said Wednesday that she was putting the cuts at the Chignecto-Regional School Board on hold pending a review by the government.

In a statement read in the legislature, Jennex said she wrote a letter to the board telling them not to finalize their budget cuts.

"These decisions are unacceptable," said Jennex, adding that the government wants to ensure that any reductions that are made are in the best interests of students.

The Chignecto-Central board announced last week that it would cut 41 librarian positions as it deals with a $6.5 million funding shortfall.

The move drew the ire of Premier Darrell Dexter, who accused the board Tuesday of "playing games" and trying to embarrass the government.

Dexter said the government's decision Wednesday to halt the cuts is meant to help the board with its "budgeting problem." He said a budget officer from the Education Department would examine the board's books and report back with recommendations.

"This particular board has to understand that our priority is to make sure that the dollars get directly into the classroom," Dexter said.

Chignecto-Central board chairwoman Trudy Thompson said the government's move came just hours before the board was to announce its staffing cuts at a public meeting.

Thompson said she was at a loss to explain the government's rationale, adding that the decision to lay off the librarians was a "gut-wrenching process."

"These are not decisions the board wanted to make but we have to bring in a balanced budget," she said.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said the government's order to halt the layoffs was a desperate attempt to "change the channel."

"You cannot reduce funding at the same time you are adding more responsibility and more programs and think you are going to be able to deliver them," said McNeil.

The government has reduced overall funding to the province's eight school boards by 1.3 per cent this year. The $13.4 million cut follows a $17.6 million reduction in funding last year.

Meanwhile, the government proposed amendments to the Education Act on Wednesday that could shrink the size of school boards. The change would reduce the minimum number of required members on any school board from eight to five.

Jennex said the change could save school boards money, but she couldn't say how much because school boundaries are set by the province's Utility and Review Board, which reviews the size of school boards every eight years.

In a later email, the Education Department said the total cost of paying for the expenses and stipends of all of the province's school board members was $2.4 million in 2011-12. That figure included stipends of $9,000 for each school board member and $15,000 for each board chairman.