Students at Bridgewater Junior-Senior High School (BHS) will transfer to Park View Education Centre (PVEC) as early as the next school year.
At a meeting on September 28, the South Shore Regional School Board voted in favour of moving the Grade 10-12 students from BHS to PVEC.
Board members Theresa Griffin, Tina Hennigar, Pat Garrison and Elliot Payzant, along with chair Jennifer Naugler, voted for the move. Board members Elizabeth Crossland, Cheryl Fougere and Vernon Simms voted against.
More than 70 members of the public attended the meeting, held at BHS, but many left not long after vote. The mood was subdued with most people silent upon hearing the board's decision, but one man in the audience was heard saying "shameful." One woman dropped a pile of signs in front of the board table and left.
The students may move before all of the PVEC renovations are completed, but the education spaces are expected to be finished by their September 2017 target date.
After months of debate and controversy, the decision ultimately came down to what would create more efficient programming and how best to deal with the increased budget pressures.
An estimated $309,000 will be gained from staff savings, but a looming $1.7 million lost in transition funding over the next two years may lead to further staff cuts unless additional dollars can be found. Salaries alone account for more than 80 per cent of the board's $76.1 million budget.
Fougere, the Bridgewater representative and a candidate for town council, pointed out the challenges of not having all of the necessary information in a timely manner and the inconsistent data provided.
She thanked the SOC for its work and those who called or wrote the board. However, she cautioned against making a decision that would create a domino effect and negatively impact the students, saying, "Let's not rush such a complex decision."
Crossland presented her own list of issues with the process which ranged from the former superintendent advising board members not to attend the public meetings, uncertainty around the Pentz and Petite Rivere schools, the lack of response from the Minister of Education and the issue of trust.
Crossland tried to introduce a motion to effectively stop the review, but legal counsel John MacPherson explained that under the Education Act the board must follow all directives in the school review policy, namely the 30 day window the board has to make a decision, and the motion was taken off the table.
But other members felt the move would improve programming, including Griffin who said it was the "right thing to do."
"What I see is the possibility of having a far more equitable opportunity for teachers and support staff when we merge the two high school programs."
Hennigar said her decision came down to the $1.7 million figure. But the money, she said, was evidence that the funding model is broken and the provincial government has instead pitted community against community with its review policy.
Naugler called the process "emotionally charged" and challenging, particularly when the public and media only hear one side of it.
While the situation didn't come down to money, Naugler said the budget pressures are "immense" and the board has a duty to achieve a balanced budget.
Mayor of the Town of Bridgewater David Walker was disappointed with the decision and said the students should have been involved as stakeholders.
"Maybe then instead of having a load of students here tonight with placards in opposition, you'd have them here with placards supporting the move because they understand it and they see value in it," he said.
"I'll be perfectly blunt in saying I think people should thank the people of Bridgewater and the students of Bridgewater High School because we've just solved a problem that Park View Education Centre and the county has."
MLA for Lunenburg West Mark Furey said the school review process was changed by Bob Fowler in 2013 and resulted in decisions being made at the community level.
"It's not my position to intervene or inject in the decisions of another elected body," he said, "no different than if we as a provincial government made a decision." Furey added that it is now the collective responsibility of the community to advance the best interests of the students.
A transition team, led by an assigned senior staff member, will soon begin consulting those affected, including school staff, students and teachers. The team will report to the board regularly.
The board will also begin a catchment area review of the Bridgewater and Park View families, while the superintendent will review facility utilization and operating costs throughout the board.
Staff will examine grade configurations at Bridgewater Elementary School and BHS in order to optimize programming and facility use.
Under the move, there will be an estimated 854 students at PVEC, with 44 teaching spaces and six learning commons. Enrollment over the next 10 years was expected to fall to just over 500 students at PVEC, while at BHS it was projected to remain steady at around 400 students.
Through correspondence with the Department of Education, the board decided in the spring to keep Bayview Community School beyond 2020.