Court upholds school board decision to move students

by Michael Lee

  • <p>MICHAEL LEE PHOTO</p><p>Students hold up signs at a South Shore Regional School Board meeting on September 14, 2016, in opposition to moving the Grade 10-12 students from Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School to Park View Education Centre.</p>

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has sided with the South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB) over its decision to move students from Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School (BHS) to Park View Education Centre (PVEC).

In a written decision, Justice Mona Lynch said the board's decision to move the Grade 10-12 students was made in a "fair and transparent process" and was within the board's mandate and power to make.

"The decision was made by a majority vote," said Lynch in her concluding remarks. "There was justification, transparency and intelligibility in the decision-making process and the decision made falls within the range of possible acceptable outcomes."

The town has signaled it will not appeal the ruling, meaning the students will move this September.

Lynch's decision settles a judicial review filed by Bridgewater town council last year to have a court overturn the school board's decision.

Both sides met in court on March 7 after the school board failed to have the review dismissed and later set an appeal date.

In a statement, Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said while the town is disappointed with the decision it fully respects Lynch's conclusions. He encouraged the board to abandon its appeal, which is set to be heard in May, to allow all parties to move forward together.

"The goal in pursuing the judicial review was to ensure that the best interests of our students were treated as a priority," said Mitchell.

He described the previous council's concerns as "still an unhealed wound" and said it will continue to support its students during and after the transition, having already increased communication with its school board representative.

He said there are many unanswered questions, including about the future of the BHS building. "We are hopeful that the SSRSB will be open and transparent with the next steps in this process," he said.

School board chair Elliot Payzant was happy with Lynch's decision and said, "It allows us to move on and move forward."

He said the board still feels it acted in the best interests of students and their education.

About $113,000 has been spent on the judicial review as of mid-March, with the board having paid roughly $90,000 and the town an estimated $23,000.

There have not been any talks yet about recovering legal costs, said Payzant, or dismissing the appeal case.

But he said after previous discussions with Mitchell, both have agreed that they want better relations between the town and school board.

A team made up of school board staff and stakeholders from the Bridgewater and Park View schools, meanwhile, has been working in the background over the past several months to determine how best to transition the students.

The board is also considering using the additional space at BHS for the elementary and middle schools.

While in court, the town raised several issues over the fairness of the school review process, but all were dismissed by Lynch in her decision.

She did not believe, for example, that the renovations at PVEC, although having started prior to the review being completed, did not establish school board members as having a "closed mind."

When the review was paused last summer so independent consultant Alphonse MacNeil could examine issues raised about the process, Lynch said it "was done for good and valid reasons," despite the school board having breached the 30-day timeline to arrive at a final decision.

"It was the fairest and most reasonable course of proceeding," she said. The recommendations outlined in the MacNeil report were also meant for the minister of education, not the school board.

As for accusations of a rushed process, she said the citizens and representatives of the town had "real" opportunities to voice their concerns and present their case.

To allow the school board to put off its decision until after the elections in October would have been unreasonable, said Lynch.

And while the former superintendent said the school review policy was a guideline, a comment viewed as misleading to the School Options Committee (SOC) tasked with carrying out the review, Lynch said the group had already finished its work by then and could not have been misled.

The size of the SOC was mandated by policy, said Lynch, despite criticisms of it being too extensive and unmanageable.

She also said the SOC does not make the final decision, but rather makes a recommendation for the board to consider, and that reviewing both Bridgewater and Park View together was reasonable given their geographic closeness.

In her final statements, Lynch said the court is required to show restraint in interfering with elected decision-making bodies and cannot substitute its decision for a school board.

However, she noted that the lack of trust among the public and members of the SOC and school board "will take time to heal."

"A decision to discontinue having a high school at BJSHS is a decision that brings out high emotions in those affected by the decision," she said. "It is a decision that affects people on a very personal level."

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