2017-03-29

School board sets Pentz and Petite closure date

by Michael Lee

  • <p>MICHAEL LEE PHOTO</p><p>From left, Jacob Pelkey, Jenna Pelkey, Stella Newell and Stella Thompson draw at the Voglers Cove Community Hall as part of a parent-led demonstration against the closure Petite Riviere Elementary School.</p>

The South Shore Regional School Board has scheduled dates for when Pentz and Petite Riviere elementary schools will close, a move that came the same day parents pulled their kids out of class in protest.

The motion was introduced by African Nova Scotian representative Vernon Simms at a meeting on March 22.

Both schools are set to close by the end of the 2018 school year, but July 31, 2018, has now been chosen as the official date, signalling a retreat by the board from choosing an addition and alteration, or renovation, as the community has asked for.

Simms said it's been a long journey, but it's time to bring the matter to an end. "People need to know," he said.

Nearly all board members agreed, including Jennifer Naugler, the representative for the Pentz and Petite areas, who in February introduced a motion to rescind the board's closure decisions from 2013, but was unable to get the necessary votes to proceed.

She said it wasn't clear what the next step will be, but setting dates allows for transition planning to start.

Of the eight voting members, only Elizabeth Crossland from the New Germany area opposed. Crossland said she wanted "another kick at the can" and would have liked every opportunity to get a new school.

Board chair Elliot Payzant told LighthouseNOW that the motion doesn't change anything since the schools were going to close anyway. "It just makes the public [more] aware of it."

Speaking from the public gallery, Leif Helmer, chair of the school advisory council (SAC) for Petite Riviere, called the decision "confounding" and a further disappointment. "I do not understand what our next step is as your SAC," he said.

Helmer said he requested a meeting with the chair and superintendent, and also wanted an opportunity to present information to the board that evening, but did not hear back.

Superintendent Scott Milner said a meeting with Petite Riviere is imminent and they're working on organizing schedules. "I think it's just a matter of getting the time aligned. There's no intent to avoid anything or avoid receiving information from any community group."

Al Sullivan, chair of the SAC for Pentz elementary, said he was disappointed given money was considered for a renovation.

In a letter dated February 22, Education Minister Karen Casey repeated her support of a renovation should the board accept one and said she understood the board's bylaws allow for a previous motion to be rescinded.

Reports from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, as well as from Stantec, which support a renovation as more cost effective than a new school, meet the "spirit" of that provision in the bylaws, she said.

But Payzant stated again that the advice of the board's legal counsel is to follow the regulations in place at the time, which prevented the minister from overturning a board decision around school closures.

Sullivan made clear he was never against a renovation, and said he'll continue to focus on protecting the kids, ensuring their environment is safe and that the two buildings are maintained. "I still don't think it's over."

The actions taken by the board came the same day as a parent-led demonstration that saw parents from the Petite Riviere community pull their children out of school and move them to the Voglers Cove Community Hall.

The "alternative learning day," as described by organizers, was seen as a "positive protest" meant to express the frustration and disappointment in the community.

Activities, crafts, games and a hot lunch were provided, while volunteers donated their time to help.

Only six students attended school that day while another 67 were absent, of which more than 30 took part in the demonstration.

Milner said the board only learned about the protest the night before, but that all school staff were present. However, he said a "heads up" in order to plan for it would have been appreciated.

"I don't support them keeping the students out of school. From my point of view, they're putting their children in front of this when there are mechanisms, like this board meeting, to communicate ideas, thoughts and opinions about the board's work," said Milner.

"I don't believe it has any impact on the board's decision. It perhaps attracted some attention from the media, but the impact on the decision, I'd say none."

As for where the Pentz and Petite Riviere students will go next year, the likely choices are Hebbville Academy and Bridgewater Elementary School.

A possible catchment area review this fall may redetermine which students go to which school, but the question, said Milner, is what impact moving students to Hebbville or Bridgewater will have.

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