Hearing concludes in Petite Riviere judicial review

by Michael Lee

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Lawyers from the Greater Petite Area Community Association, Municipality of Lunenburg and South Shore Regional School Board met in Halifax Supreme Court on September 7 for a judicial review centred around the closure of Petite Riviere Elementary School.</p>

A hearing in the case of Petite Riviere Elementary School has finished, leaving the future of the small, rural school in the hands of a Supreme Court judge.

Lawyers representing the Greater Petite Area Community Association (GPACA), Municipality of Lunenburg (MODL) and South Shore Regional School Board presented their arguments to Justice Christa Brothers at a judicial review in Halifax Supreme Court on September 7.

The GPACA is challenging a school board motion from March, which set July 31, 2018, as the official date to close Petite school, arguing the decision was made without following the school review process.

Brothers will take time to consider the case and will render a decision at a later date.

Stacey Godsoe, the association's chair, said she feels confident in the case and the group's lawyer, but was disappointed that the matter had to come before a courtroom.

"We're hopeful that the judge sees the nuances of this case, the uniqueness of our situation and can provide a similarly unique solution for us."

Regardless of what the outcome will be, Godsoe said the group remains "unfazed."

"We will keep a school open in our community, it's not an option," she said, "but we certainly hope to have the school board on board and work with them. Absolutely, we've always tried and wanted to do that."

How exactly that will be achieved is uncertain, but Godsoe said they will find a way to do it.

A school board spokesperson said superintendent Scott Milner has chosen not to comment until the court has made its decision.

Although the judicial review was launched in response to a decision from last March, it was a motion from 2013 which was the main point of contention at the hearing.

In 2013, board members voted to close Pentz and Petite schools due to declining enrolment.

Brian Casey, counsel for GPACA, said prior to the vote, then vice-chair Elliott Payzant offered a clarification, saying both schools would remain open until a new school had been built to replace them.

Casey pointed to this as evidence that closing Petite school was conditional on having a replacement, meaning the board could not have set a closure date.

The board has said it cannot revisit this because the regulations in place at the time prevented the Minister of Education from altering a decision around school closures, which was interpreted to mean the board, by extension, could not either.

But Casey said the board can change its mind and regardless of what the regulations meant, they were repealed in 2014.

In response, school board counsel John MacPherson said there is no legal basis to conduct a new school review and he said the association was trying to indirectly challenge the 2013 closure decision, even though it wasn't before the court.

Referring to that motion, MacPherson said the simple wording instructed the board to permanently close the schools and request a new building.

"That's all the board decided," said MacPherson, adding the board has applied three times for a new school. "That's all that's in the motion."

He said school boards "speak through their motions" and called it "dangerous" for the courts to rely on anything but what the motions say.

On whether the board could have changed its mind, MacPherson pointed to an attempt in February in which a board member tried to bring the 2013 decision up for reconsideration - the attempt failed following a tied 3-3 vote.

Despite legal counsel having advised the board that it could not rescind the decision, MacPherson said three board members voted against their own legal advice.

Either way, MacPherson said the decision is final, as stated in the current and former school review processes.

MODL entered into the judicial review as an intervenor and counsel J.C. Reddy said the municipality will have to bear the cost and liability of having to take on a vacant school building.

Closing Petite school would take out one of the community's "focal buildings," Reddy argued, which would create social and economic impacts.

A lawyer was also present on behalf of the Attorney General, who took part in the judicial review as an observer.

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