04/25/2012 11:10 EDT | Updated 06/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia school board should take second look at librarian cuts, report says

HALIFAX - A Nova Scotia school board that threatened to lay off all of its librarians in response to budget cuts should reconsider the measure, a provincial review concludes.

The report released Wednesday outlines a series of options totalling $1.63 million in alternate savings that it said could protect at least some of the 41 librarian positions at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board.

Senior Treasury Board adviser Doug Stewart, who led the review, said the board has a variety of choices.

"I think that the board's complete elimination of library services is just inconsistent with the sector," he said after a news conference in Truro, N.S.

He said one of the board's options is to cut eight teaching positions at the elementary school level. The board could also reduce supports to some programs, including in-school suspensions, he added.

The provincial government launched the review two weeks ago in response to cuts that Premier Darrell Dexter said were calculated to "embarrass" the government.

Stewart found that in general, the board's decisions were "reasonable and understandable" in the face of declining enrolment. But he said the board was "somewhat rigid" in protecting its core principles of maintaining classroom supports.

"It was, without question, a full and thorough budget process," the report said.

Both opposition leaders called on Dexter to apologize to the board for his comments, given the report's findings.

"He should owe them an apology," said Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil. "He clearly was impugning their reputation ... by suggesting they were politically motivated by the decision that they made."

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie also demanded an apology from Dexter.

"The budget officer concluded that the board acted reasonably and responsibly in the circumstances," Baillie said. "I think the premier owes that school board an apology for calling their moves political."

Dexter was unrepentant.

"I think they were obviously politically motivated," he said. "In fact, transparently so."

Dexter said his proof was in the report, which found that the board had not considered all of its options before proposing to cut all of its librarians.

Stewart also said the board made "concerted efforts" to protect the classroom and target administrative savings, although he added that it did not fully consider eliminating positions through attrition as instructed by Education Minister Ramona Jennex.

He said the board also expressed frustration at a lack of communication from the government.

"The province should consider, in future years, being more prescriptive in where boards should seek to find reductions should they be required," the report said.

The board announced the librarian cuts earlier this month as it struggled to deal with a $6.5-million shortfall.

School board Supt. Gary Clarke said Wednesday the board appreciated having Stewart's perspective, although many of the options outlined in his report had already been considered.

Clarke said the board is prepared to take a second look and has 60 days to balance its budget from the time the province passes the spring budget, which hasn't happened yet.

As for Dexter's comments, he said board members felt dismayed by them.

"I think it's fair to say the board members were disappointed with the comments, but in the end we have something here that we can move forward with and that's what our board will do."

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 is on the heels of a $17.6-million reduction in funding last year.