Auditor urges maintenance plan for schools

REGINA – Saskatchewan’s provincial auditor says the Prairie Spirit School Division needs a better plan to maintain schools before it finds itself, in her words, “in a pickle.”

Judy Ferguson said in her annual report Tuesday that the division identifies structural deficiencies in 40 per cent of its schools, but there’s no long-term plan for repairs.

The auditor’s report did not look at every school division, but Ferguson said that in the past the same maintenance issues tended to pop up across government organizations.

“We realize it’s not as sexy as a new building,” she Ferguson.

“It’s not like a shiny new coin where you can cut the ribbon, etc. I guess what we’re trying to convey is that it’s equally important. When you’re building new infrastructure, plan for that maintenance and the cost of maintenance, factor that in right away.”

Ferguson said spending money on maintenance early on can save time, effort and dollars down the road.

The Prairie Spirit School Division has 45 schools in 28 communities surrounding the city of Saskatoon.

Education Minister Don Morgan said the province’s 750 schools range from “nearly new to over 100 years old,” so maintenance is a work in progress.

He could not say if other school divisions have as many structural deficiencies, but said Prairie Spirit has “not committed enough resources to maintenance over the last number of years.”

“Some things that they have on their list are duplicated, some things they should have done years ago,” said Morgan.

Ferguson’s report also raises concerns about the risk of aquatic invasive species entering Saskatchewan’s 100,000 lakes.

She said the Ministry of Environment has trained 36 conservation officers on how to inspect watercraft, but it hasn’t decided how often to sample water or carry out inspections and who should do them and where.

She also said public education is key.

“More of the public needs to know some of the invasive species, like mussels, can readily attach themselves to watercraft and gear and that they can live a full month outside of water,” said the auditor.

Environment Minister Herb Cox said Saskatchewan is stepping up efforts to stop aquatic invasive species. Cox said conservation officers have already intercepted boats heading into Saskatchewan from Alberta, while border agents have caught boats from the U.S. that needed to be decontaminated.

Mussels reproduce quickly and can disrupt the food chain, clog water pipes and create algae.

“Education is our most important aspect,” Cox said. “We have to convince people how dangerous these things are and to want to have their boats inspected.”

For the first time, the auditor’s office also looked at programs where certain people get tax breaks. It specifically looked at the province’s fuel tax exemption.

Since 1987, the exemption has allowed farmers, bulk fuel dealers selling heating fuel and producers of renewable resources, such as commercial fishers, to avoid tax on certain fuel.

Ferguson said the purpose of the heating oil exemption is clear because it makes the price comparable to natural gas, which does not have a tax.

But the rest is not clear and a review is needed, she suggested.

Finance Minister Kevin Doherty said the government is reviewing all its revenue and expenditures, including tax breaks, as it looks to get out of deficit. Ending the fuel exemption for farmers and producers could increase their costs, he said.