Judge to hear arguments in Petite school case

by Michael Lee

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>The Greater Petite Area Community Association is using the court system to challenge a school board decision, which set July 31, 2018, as the official closure date for Petite Riviere Elementary School.</p>

The controversial case of Petite Riviere Elementary School will finally get its day in court.

Lawyers representing members of the Petite Riviere community and South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB) will meet on September 7 in Halifax Supreme Court for a judicial review, which could decide whether the small Lunenburg County school will close as planned or stay open beyond this upcoming school year.

Petite and nearby Pentz Elementary School have faced permanent closure ever since school board members voted to close both back in 2013 due to declining enrolment.

At issue is a school board motion from March, which set July 31, 2018, as the official date to close Petite school.

A group called the Greater Petite Area Community Association (GPACA) is challenging this motion, arguing among other things that the decision to set a closure date was made without following the school review process.

The SSRSB, meanwhile, argues it merely set a date and in documents filed in court, accuses the GPACA of trying to indirectly challenge the 2013 decision in a "collateral attack."

"The Board respectfully submits that the setting of a date for the permanent closure of the school does not provide a legal basis for the Applicants to ... challenge the original permanent closure decision made some four years previous."

This latest court action is the culmination of years of ongoing disputes that have drawn the attention of provincial representatives, including the local MLA and Minister of Education.

It also marks the second time in less than a year the school board has been taken to court.

Last year, the Town of Bridgewater launched a judicial review in an attempt to stop the transfer of Grade 10-12 students from Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School to Park View Education Centre.

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge ruled in favour of the school board last March, only to have the Petite Riviere group file its own judicial review the following April.

A number of arguments will be made at the upcoming hearing, one of which will be that the school board did not intend on closing Petite school until a replacement was built.

Critics in the Petite Riviere community have made this argument before, and meeting minutes from 2013, filed in court, show then vice-chair Elliott Payzant attempted to clarify this point prior to board members casting a vote.

A letter from former education minister Karen Casey, dated February 22, 2017, also shows Payzant expressed his concerns to Casey previously in which he said the motion to close Petite and Pentz schools was "not reflective" of the school board's intent, "now or at the time of the motion."

But despite what the true intent may have been, the SSRSB says it does not have the legal authority to reconsider its decision because a school closure decision is final.

In response to whether closing the school is conditional on having a new one built, the strict wording of the motion directed the board to simply request a new building.

The SSRSB says it has satisfied this, having applied, although unsuccessfully, for a new school in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the Municipality of Lunenburg, having joined the judicial review as an intervenor alongside the GPACA, will present its own arguments.

The municipality says it and the community were "shocked" after the school board voted to permanently close Petite Riviere school without having done a review, had a replacement school built or carried out any renovations to the existing building.

The Attorney General of Nova Scotia will also take part, but only to watch over the proceedings.

Although the GPACA is fighting the closure of Petite school specifically, a favourable decision from the courts could have implications for Pentz as well.

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