2016-11-23

Bridgewater begins court action challenging school board decision

by Michael Lee

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>On November 10, the Town of Bridgewater officially filed for a judicial review to request that the South Shore Regional School Board&#8217;s decision to move Bridgewater High School students to Park View be declared &#8220;null and void.&#8221;</p>

The Town of Bridgewater has filed for a judicial review in an attempt to overturn a recent school board decision in court.

The notice, filed on November 10 with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in Bridgewater, requested the South Shore Regional School Board's decision to move Grade 10-12 students from Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School (BHS) to Park View Education Centre (PVEC) be declared "null and void" on the grounds that the board "and/or" the appointed School Options Committee (SOC) failed to properly follow the school review policy.

The former Bridgewater council voted unanimously in October to move ahead with legal action following months of criticism directed at the school board for its decision to move the students.

"Right now as it stands council has not expressed any desire to change its current course," said David Mitchell, the town's newly sworn-in mayor. "So right now, we are pursuing the judicial review."

In its notice, the town says the board caused the school review to be "fundamentally flawed" by providing mandates and objectives that were "too extensive and unmanageable" for the SOC, a committee it deemed too large to conduct a review effectively in the given time.

The 20-member SOC first met in November 2015 and proposed moving students on May 2016.

It's also been alleged the board didn't allow SOC members a full opportunity to review recommendations before they were advanced, failed to properly consider or implement the recommendations of the MacNeil report and began a renovation of PVEC before the review was complete, "effectively pre-empting the outcome of the school review."

Board members were advised not to attend the public SOC meetings, the notice states, an apparent reference to comments made by former superintendent Geoff Cainen. In January he told board members they could attend the meetings if they wanted to but recommended they not to prevent getting "hammered" by the public before all of the facts were received.

The school review policy makes no specific mention of school board attendance at public meetings, but says a wide range of school and community groups are invited to participate.

But the town claims comments made after the school review was completed indicate the board was not required to use the policy despite having done so, an act which misled the SOC and the public at large.

In September, responding to a question over timelines, incoming superintendent Scott Milner said the board was following the policy as a guideline.

And back in July, Cainen said he was assured by the minister of education that the board had the authority to pause and continue the review as it chooses because it was using the policy as a template.

The board paused the school review a couple months prior to allow for an independent report to investigate process and procedure.

In response to the town's notice, school board chair Elliot Payzant said it's now left to the lawyers from both sides to meet with a judge to decide whether or not to go forward.

"As far as I know, what we're doing right now is playing a waiting game," he said.

The town will appear before a judge to make a motion on directions for the judicial review on December 20.

Mitchell said he has met with school board officials, including the chair and superintendent, and although the judicial review was raised in those talks, he wants to make sure lines of communication are kept open and there isn't any fighting "because in the middle of this [are] students."

As council pursues legal action, discussions around litigation will be handled in-camera, but Mitchell added, "I want to make sure whatever can be in the public domain will be."

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