2017-05-10

Petite Riviere association takes school board to court

by Michael Lee

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>The Greater Petite Area Community Association has filed a notice for judicial review in Halifax Supreme Court, challenging the South Shore Regional School Board&#8217;s decision to close Petite Riviere Elementary School.</p>

The South Shore Regional School Board is being taken to court over a school closure for the second time in less than a year.

A lawyer representing the Greater Petite Area Community Association and the group's chair Stacey Godsoe filed a notice for judicial review in Halifax Supreme Court on April 26 challenging the board's decision to close Pentz and Petite Riviere elementary schools.

The association says it is filing a judicial review on the grounds that the motion to close the schools is in breach of the Education Act. It argues the board was "wrong" in determining it could not reconsider that decision, which prevented it from deciding whether to accept money for a renovation, and parents affected by the closure are owed a duty of fairness.

The association, along with members of the School Advisory Council for Petite Riviere, have called on the board to reverse its original decision from 2013 that put into motion the upcoming closures of Pentz and Petite Riviere schools.

On March 22, the school board set July 31, 2018, as the closure date for both schools. That decision is what the association wishes to have reviewed.

Godsoe said the community has tried many times for more than six years to find a solution with the school board to the "perceived impasse."

The board has stated repeatedly that it cannot overturn its previous decision since it must follow the laws in place at the time.

In a separate legal opinion acquired by the association, Brian P. Casey, the group's legal counsel from the law firm BOYNECLARKE LLP in Dartmouth, argues the decision to close the schools is "now legally irrelevant" because current legislation would require a new school review.

Court documents say the board determined it would close the school once a replacement building was constructed.

However, three requests for a new school have been denied by the provincial government. The minister of education has also said the government could provide money for a renovation upon cabinet approval.

"This legal action by the [Greater Petite Area Community Association] was a last resort and not where we wanted to end up," said Godsoe by email. "Its sole purpose and focus is to secure a fair process for our school, community and its very youngest and most vulnerable members – who cannot speak for themselves."

She said the board is faced with a difficult job and difficult decisions, "but humans are fallible, make mistaken decisions and need to be held accountable as the costs are too high not to speak up and demand better."

"They are refusing to explore other viable and lawful options available to them which could see a win-win-win for the community, the board and the province."

On May 16, the association will appear before a judge to possibly set a date and time for a hearing.

Superintendent Scott Milner said the board will be present to offer its defence. "My view is the board has looked at all the information available in this case."

He said board members have asked the correct questions and explored all the data, with new bus runs developed as efficiently as possible.

Whether the motion to close the schools is still lawful Milner did not comment, saying it is a matter of legal argument.

The school board was taken to court last year after the Town of Bridgewater sought to prevent 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 in March.

Milner said the board accumulated upwards of $150,000 in legal fees but was awarded costs, meaning the town could cover all or some of it.

The board is currently in budget discussions and Milner said they will have to account for any costs. He expects they will have to pay a similar amount fighting the new judicial review. "This is something we can't avoid."

The board and town will appear in court again on May 15, the day before the association's court date. The board is questioning whether the Town of Bridgewater, or any other municipality, has the legal standing to launch a judicial review around school board decisions. Those arguments will be made in Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.

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