Board says misunderstanding means 2 schools will close — and it can't reverse it

Stephen McNeil shuffles cabinet, but vows not to change course

A school board in southern Nova Scotia says it is powerless to rectify a four-year-old procedural misunderstanding that will lead to the closure of two elementary schools, even though some members want to keep them open.

Pentz and Petite Rivière elementary schools near Bridgewater have roughly 70 students each. A school review back in 2012 recommended they be closed. 

The board also wanted the province to build a new school in the area, and it was the intention to only close Pentz and Petite Rivière once a new building went up, according to South Shore Regional School Board chair Elliott Payzant. 

The problem, however, is a clarification made by Payzant to the closure motions at a March 2013 board meeting. Other members believed they were voting only to close the schools if a new one was built, he said.

But the clarification was never actually part of the motions and the province has so far refused requests for a new school. Furthermore, the board has been told by its lawyer the school closures cannot be stopped, even by the education minister.

School board member Jennifer Naugler said she voted for the schools to close under the belief they would be replaced.

"It's devastating, it's really discouraging and devastating and I feel just terrible about it," said Naugler. 

Payzant said provincial legislation in 2013 clearly states that once a board voted to close a school, its decision was final and the school needed to close in five years.

But Lunenburg West MLA and Business Minister Mark Furey disagrees. He said the board simply needs to rescind its motion to close the schools.

"You always have the option to revisit that decision, the standing parliamentary procedures under Robert's Rules of Order allow for motions to rescind," he said.

"The South Shore Regional School Board bylaws capture the ability for a motion to rescind."

Naugler said she tried to rescind the previously approved motions from 2013. However, her motion was called out of order by the board's chair. Payzant said the board's lawyer told him that can't be done because once a board votes to close a school, the decision is final. 

Education Minister Karen Casey has written to the school board saying $6 million could be available to upgrade either Pentz or Petite Rivière schools. Furey said the idea to upgrade one of the schools came from an engineering report done by consultant Stantec.

It suggested additions and alterations to one school would "provide the best value to the community," according to Furey.

Furey said he would like to see Petite Rivière Elementary remain open.

Parents aren't happy 

A parent in Petite Rivière, Leif Helmer, chairs the school advisory committee and told CBC he has sought his own legal advice. He was told there is a way to reverse the process and save at least one of the schools. 

Stephen Besaw's daughter goes to Petite Rivière Elementary. The organic farmer said the area is ideal for his family as it is rural but has a nearby school for his two children and isn't far from Bridgewater.

"With a school not being in the picture that makes it less likely that other young families would move here," he said. 

The South Shore Regional School Board is looking to close both elementary schools by June 2018. Students from Pentz and Petite Rivière would then be bused to the school in Hebbville. The longest ride for a child being bused would be 50 minutes each way.