No new school or renos for Pentz or Petite Riviere

by Michael Lee

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Petite Riviere Elementary School.</p>
  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Pentz Elementary School.</p>

The Nova Scotia government has no plans to build a new school or conduct any renovations for either Pentz or Petite Riviere elementary schools, both of which are set to close next year.

The latest capital plan from the provincial government makes no mention of upcoming work at either school, despite repeated requests from the South Shore Regional School Board for a replacement building and a letter from the education minister stating cabinet could approve an addition and alteration (A&A).

Total spending in the 2017-18 capital plan will amount to $684.2 million, with nine new schools and seven A&As approved.

Minister Karen Casey said a lot of communities are looking for A&As and new buildings "and we have to do what's within our fiscal capacity."

"We recognize that the Petite and Pentz issue is there and we also recognize that we want to work with the board on that," she said.

The board has applied three times for a new building since 2013, when a motion was made to close the Pentz and Petite Riviere schools due to declining enrollment.

Requests from 2013, 2014, and most recently 2016, have been declined because of fiscal constraints.

Casey sent a letter to the school board in November 2015 indicating the government would approve a major A&A to upgrade Pentz or Petite Riviere, subject to cabinet approval, but it does not appear that will happen either.

Parents from both schools have repeatedly voiced their concerns around the issue, with some asking for a new building while others believe an A&A is the best option.

Casey said whether it is an A&A or a new school, the province wants to respond to all communities. "It takes time to do that and it takes money to do that," she said.

"We have to look at the capacity we have within our capital plan. We have to look at the needs that we have and if you look at the capital plan, it's a very small capital plan for school construction, but we believe it responds to the most current needs right now."

Casey's department represents 16.2 per cent of all capital spending, not including contingencies, behind the departments of Business and Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.

The plan was released on January 25, the same day the school board held its regular board meeting, and although Pentz and Petite Riviere were not part of the agenda, board member Jennifer Naugler raised the matter a few times and requested that meetings be scheduled with members, the superintendent and the respective School Advisory Councils (SAC) to discuss next steps.

But despite previous efforts to preserve the schools in some form, it's been repeated by the board, staff and legal counsel that the only way to stop the upcoming closures is through an act of the provincial legislature.

"The way we are right now, they'll both close unless there's due legislation," said board chair Elliot Payzant.

He said the board would probably ask for legislation but it would mean having a conversation with the minister.

But Casey said, "Any decisions that would be made about renovations, A&As or a new capital construction would come through the capital plan that would be announced by the province, not through an act in the legislature."

Chair of the SAC for Petite Riviere Leif Helmer told LighthouseNOW by email that they anticipated the outcome given the province's limited finances, but now more than ever the board needs to ask for an A&A.

He said two A&As were approved this year for elementary schools and several have been funded across the province since 2013.

"Asking for a new build year after year is like running around in circles trying to get somewhere, especially since government has been clear that there is no extra funding," wrote Helmer.

In a letter to the school board dated December 21, 2016, Helmer noted his SAC's support for an A&A as the only affordable option available and described a request for a new building as a "non-starter" that has wasted four years worth of efforts.

"This route would provide a positive way forward for both the board and the communities affected. It would be an alternative to closing both schools and busing children out of their home communities for up to two hours return or more each day," said Helmer.

"Please request a renovation for our school, so that it may remain the high quality, effective and uniquely rich learning space it is recognized to be."

A report released by Stantec last year found that an A&A to either school would cost less than a new building-renovating Pentz and Petite would cost $5.5 million and $6 million, respectively, while a new school would be roughly $11 million.

But Payzant said according to legal counsel, an A&A is not the answer because a motion was already made to close the schools, which need to be kept open for renovations to happen.

Along with an ask for a new building, the school board also made requests for work at Bridgewater Elementary, Liverpool Regional High and New Ross Consolidated schools, including washroom, stairway, heating, roofing and electrical repairs, as well as energy efficiency initiatives. Those were denied as well.

The board has received the final phase of funding for renovations at Park View Education Centre.

Preliminary work done by school board staff suggests students from Pentz and Petite Riviere would likely attend Bridgewater Elementary School and Hebbville Academy.

If nothing changes, the Pentz and Petite Riviere schools will officially close their doors by September 2018. Closing each will save about $361,000 and $267,000, respectively.

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