2017-07-12

Municipality of Lunenburg to host two public meetings on school closures

by Michael Lee

The Municipality of Lunenburg will host two public meetings to talk about rural school closures, following a council decision to intervene in the closure of Petite Riviere Elementary School.

Sarah Kucharski, communications officer for the municipality, said the consultations will give council an idea of how it can support the public when it comes to school closures.

"We don't have a say in school board decisions, but there potentially could be some things that we could do to make transitions easier or to support the community in creating different options."

Kucharski said council has not made any decisions, or had any other discussions, on what those other options could be, but she did note other municipalities have been involved in community hub proposals.

"We just really want to hear from people and understand what their expectations are and how we can support them or spend their tax dollars wisely in an effort to make sure our communities keep our rural schools."

School board chairman Elliott Payzant said he didn't know a lot about the consultations, but said school closures are something people across the province are dealing with and are concerned about.

"I think it indicates that the municipality is concerned about rural school closings."

The Liberals promised during the election to review school board administration and temporarily pause all school reviews not involving "facility replacement."

Based on this, Payzant said he did not believe there would be any new school reviews for a while.

On June 27, council passed a motion unanimously authorizing its legal counsel to intervene in the judicial review between the Greater Petite Area Community Association and the South Shore Regional School Board.

The association filed its notice for judicial review in April challenging the board's decision to close Pentz and Petite Riviere Elementary Schools by July 31, 2018.

The association believes the decision to close the schools was in breach of the Education Act. Should the schools close, the students will move to Hebbville Academy the following school year.

Payzant did not want to comment on the court case and said it is being handled by the board's lawyer.

School closures have been a recurring issue for the municipality, which has taken three shuttered properties over the years - Ecole De La Rive-Sud, Riverport and District Elementary School and Centre Consolidated School - and has often voiced its refusal to accept any new buildings.

Legislation from 1982 dictates that defunct schools return to their respective town or municipality.

The municipality estimates the cost for remediation or disposal of surplus schools to cost $1 million, and the argument is the money could be used to invest in other priorities such as the economy or recreation.

Eric Hustvedt, municipal councillor representing the Petite Riviere area, said they are dealing with a trend to centralize schools.

"We're a rural municipality and all our councillors represent rural communities, and as a level of government in a specific rural community we inherit these costs when schools close."

Hustvedt said he would be pleased to support whatever council decides based on the public consultations.

"You know what's inspiring this is we not only have a couple of schools for whom closing dates have been announced, but we are concerned in the long run about other schools that may face the same challenge."

But having both the municipality and school board engaged in a legal dispute will come at a cost to taxpayers.

Kucharski said the municipality will spend an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 on legal fees, paid for using a contingency fund.

Superintendent Scott Milner told LighthouseNOW in May that he expects the board to pay upwards of $150,000 in legal fees, similar to what it paid after the judicial review with the Town of Bridgewater. In that case, the board was awarded costs.

Kucharski said the main difference is the town was the lead in its judicial review, while the municipality is simply acting as an intervenor, essentially putting its name behind the Petite Riviere association in support.

She said council did not feel its intervention would set a precedent.

"They would look at each opportunity as it came forward to them the same way they look at a number of other opportunities that come forward and then evaluate each on its own merits before making a decision."

Marissa Hurtubise, a parent from nearby Broad Cove, a few kilometres south of Petite Riviere, said the municipality's decision to join the judicial review brought a renewed sense of hope and a new energy to keep fighting.

"I think it's very promising is the first thing," she said.

Hurtubise and her husband moved to the area from Toronto and the couple would like to send their 18-month-old daughter to Petite Riviere school when she is old enough.

Hurtubise hopes the school will stay open and be a part of the community for new families. "All you can do is be hopeful really."

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