School rep sees opportunity to keep Petite Riviere open

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Chair of the School Advisory Council for Petite Riviere Elementary School, Leif Helmer, believes the South Shore Regional School Board can rescind its motion to close the school.</p>

The chair of the School Advisory Council (SAC) for Petite Riviere Elementary School is challenging the South Shore Regional School Board's interpretation of whether it can reverse a decision on school closures.

Leif Helmer said the board is following outdated legislation regarding school reviews which prevented the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development from overturning a board decision.

The school board, meanwhile, believes it must follow the regulations that were in place at the time. The decision to close Pentz and Petite Riviere elementary schools was made in March 2013 due to declining enrollment. The board has since applied for a new school, but requests made in 2013, 2014 and 2016 have all been denied due to fiscal constraints.

"It's frustrating that we're being held on a legal technicality," said Helmer.

Previous versions of the Ministerial Education Act Regulations included Section 20(3) which stated that a decision on school reviews "is final and shall not be altered by the Minister."

This was repealed in 2014 when the current school review policy was put into effect.

Section 13.02 of the school board's own bylaws also allows it to rescind a previous motion under certain conditions, such as if there has been a significant change in information or circumstances, but doing so would require a two-thirds majority from school board members.

Helmer and the SAC are calling on the board to reverse its decision to close the schools and instead push for a renovation, or an Addition and Alteration (A&A).

"Morally and ethically it's the right thing to do," said Helmer in an email.

Despite assurances from Minister Karen Casey that an A&A would be approved for either school, subject to cabinet approval, the department's most recent list of capital projects made no mention of renovations to Pentz or Petite Riviere.

Stopping the closures would run counter to the position of the board's legal counsel, that no one can overturn a decision unless legislation is passed by the provincial legislature.

"It was a regulation that was in effect when we made the motion," said board chair Elliot Payzant, meaning the decision cannot be revoked retroactively. "It can't be changed by someone of a lower authority than the minister."

Payzant said he's spoken with the minister and believes an A&A is still available, but it's a matter of how to get around the previous motion and how many members prefer an A&A over a school closure.

Superintendent Scott Milner said the current school review policy makes it clear that the board is responsible for making a final decision, which cannot be overturned.

If the board chooses to go against the school review policy, he said it will leave them vulnerable to challenges on other decisions, but Helmer believes there are other interpretations to consider.

MLA for Lunenburg West Mark Furey has supported a renovation to Petite Riviere in the past, stating in a letter dated March 30, 2015, to then school board chair Elmer Garber, that he would like to see the school remain open for the long term.

No decisions have been made, but early discussions have suggested moving Pentz students over to Bridgewater Elementary School and Petite students to Hebbville Academy.

"No one at [Petite Riviere Elementary School] accepts that is necessary yet for us," wrote Helmer.

A special board meeting was cancelled due to weather last week, but a community meeting was scheduled for February 13 at the Petite Riviere fire hall to discuss next steps.

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