School board upholds Pentz and Petite closures

by Michael Lee

  • <p>MICHAEL LEE PHOTO</p><p>Chair of the South Shore Regional School Board Elliot Payzant at a meeting on February 22. A request to overturn motions to close Pentz and Petite Riviere elementary schools, was turned down and then defeated on appeal.</p>
  • <p>MICHAEL LEE PHOTO</p><p>Chair of the School Advisory Council for Petite Riviere Elementary School Leif Helmer speaking to more than 80 people at a community meeting at the local fire hall on Heritage Day.</p>

The South Shore Regional School Board has quashed, at least for now, a push to prevent Pentz and Petite Riviere elementary schools from closing next year.

A formal request for a vote on the matter was turned down by board chair Elliot Payzant and defeated on appeal, effectively putting a stop to four years worth of efforts from members of the Pentz and Petite communities to find an alternative resolution.

Calls have heightened in recent months to have the board overturn two motions made in 2013, which put Pentz and Petite Riviere schools up for closure in five years.

At a meeting on February 22, school board representative for the area, Jennifer Naugler, attempted to file a notice to rescind those motions, arguing there's now new information and circumstances.

Doing so would have set the ground work for an Addition and Alteration (A&A), or renovation, to either school, an option that has gained the increasing support of Petite Riviere families and the local MLA.

But the board has never applied for an A&A, instead trying unsuccessfully three times to have a new school built to replace Pentz and Petite.

Payzant maintained that the decision to close the schools was final and could not be overturned by the board or the minister of education.

After a lengthy discussion on the situation at last week's school board meeting, Payzant declared a recess and the board went behind closed doors to consult with its lawyer.

When the board returned, Payzant denied Naugler's notice declaring it "out of order." Naugler immediately appealed and the board took a vote on whether to overturn Payzant.

The appeal failed in a 3-3 tie, with Naugler, vice-chair Theresa Griffin and Michael Stewart voting for, and Payzant, Pat Garrison and Vernon Simms voting against. Board members Elizabeth Crossland and Christian Maguire were absent.

Had the appeal been successful, Naugler's motion would have been introduced in late March for a final vote. But with its defeat, the motion cannot be raised again for another year.

"It's really tough," said Naugler. "As the representative for both of those schools I feel terrible about the situation and I certainly wish we would have had a chance to be able to at least have a debate around rescinding the motion."

Previous versions of the Ministerial Education Act Regulations prevented the minister of education from overturning a board decision, but it was repealed in 2014 when the current school review policy was put into effect.

However, Payzant said the regulations at the time the motion was made were clear. "The legal advice was that we could not rescind."

The legal interpretation has been a point of contention for the school community. Many of the nearly 30 people who attended the meeting criticized the board for its decision while explaining the benefits of small rural schools. Others cried "shame" once the board declared its position.

Leif Helmer, chair of the School Advisory Council for Petite Riviere, said he was deeply disappointed and felt it was undemocratic to have the debate shut down unnecessarily.

"To have the notice of rescind stopped by the chair and then when the chair's decision was appealed, he for some reason was allowed to vote on that. The bylaw is very strange in that way," he said.

"We'll reassess the situation and determine next steps. Certainly not giving up in terms of a final decision. We're months away from that," said Helmer.

A community meeting was held at the Petite Riviere Fire Hall only two days earlier on Heritage Day, drawing more than 80 people to discuss next steps. Speaking then, Helmer described the process as akin to "banging his head on a brick wall."

"If this community isn't a shining example of strength and resilience, I don't know what is."

Reports issued by Stantec and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal have supported an A&A as providing better value at around $6 million, compared to $11 million for a new school.

MLA for Lunenburg West Mark Furey publicly supported an A&A to Petite Riviere and noted that Education Minister Karen Casey would provide the funds necessary should the board request them. "Needless to say I'm disappointed in the outcome," said Furey.

Furey has often questioned the board's legal opinion and in recent days called for a decision based on facts and common sense. "Legal advice is just that, not for me to question the legal profession, but certainly difficult for the elected board members to deal with."

Superintendent Scott Milner advised the board that it could have gone against the advice of its lawyer, but cautioned against doing so in order to avoid setting a legal precedent and leaving it vulnerable to future challenges.

The board is also faced with increased budget pressures and will save about $361,000 for closing Pentz and $267,000 for closing Petite.

Payzant said the board has to balance its books by the end of the year, but he didn't think money was a major part of the decision.

The provincial government could pass legislation to prevent the schools from closing, but Payzant said he did not see any "impetus" from politicians to do so.

There are currently 71 students each at Pentz and Petite. The board projects the populations will average around 70 students over 15 years, leaving the buildings at just below half of their full capacity.

But residents say new families are moving to the area, and based on their own calculations, the student population will be even higher.

Early discussions have proposed transferring Pentz students to Bridgewater and Petite Riviere students to Hebbville Academy. The schools are set to close by September 2018.

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