The Annapolis Valley Regional School Board is considering closing two more elementary schools in West Hants.
More than 90 people attended a meeting the AVRSB held for parent groups representing the Three Mile Plains District School (TMPDS) and Windsor Forks District School (WFDS) in the gymnasium of Avon View High School.
The school board is looking into the logistics of having a new, larger school built for students in the Windsor Forks, Three Mile Plains and Newport Station districts, or renovating TMPDS and WFDS.
The board voted in favour of closing the Newport Station District School (NSDS) by no later than June 2016 last spring, in spite of clear opposition from many parents of students attending the small school.
The board has yet to announce where NSDS students will go when their school closes, but parents and guardians have been told the school will remain open for at least one more year.
Now, parent groups representing TMPDS and WFDS are asking school board officials to save their small schools.
AVRSB talks new school
The Jan. 30 meeting in Windsor started with several AVRSB officials walking the public through a lengthy slideshow presentation explaining why the board feels a new school is a viable option for the area.
The board says a new school would last longer than renovations, a larger facility would mean more educational programming opportunities, classrooms would be bigger, teachers would have access to modern instruction technology, there could be a raised music room that doubles as a stage built off the gym, the school would be designed with accessibility, security and efficiency in mind, and it’s cheaper to operate one site.
The projected enrolment for the new school is 314 students for the 2015-16 year, according to a report signed by AVRSB’s Director of Operations David Floyd.
The same report lists loss of the tight-knit communities at small schools, longer travel times for some students, and the removal of schools from communities as downsides of closing TMPDS and WFDS.
Addressing the parent groups, AVRSB Superintendent Margo Tait said the board would pitch three potential locations for the new school to the Province of Nova Scotia if AVRSB members vote in favour of seeking capital funding for a new school, rather than renovating the existing facilities. It is anticipated a decision may be reached in the spring.
“We want the very best for your students… so we’re working to make sure that something happens at your schools,” Taitsaid.
High-level estimates suggest a new school would cost about $11 million, while the existing schools would each require about $5 million in upgrades, Floyd said.
Seven of the 15 voting school board members who will decide if the board asks the Province of Nova Scotia to renovate or build anew were present at the meeting. One has yet to be elected.
Public pushes for renovations
Kelly Brown urged AVRSB members to vote in favour of keeping TMPDS, a school with 167 students, open.
“We as parents were asked twice in the last year what our feedback was. Is no one listening? Maybe we should ask the school board why they want to spend more of our taxpayers’ money on a new school that will cost more than doing renovations, knowing that the parents, students and staff are against a new school,” she recited, reading a document prepared by the Three Mile Plains Parent Support Group.
Brown said there is room for the entire student population of NSDS — a school with about 77 students — at the elementary school in Three Mile Plains. She said the parent support group wants to see the previously promised $4.64 million in capital upgrades for TMPDS back on the table.
“Our first priority is to pursue the new gymnasium.”
The funding the Province of Nova Scotia announced for the new gymnasium and music room at TMPDS in April 2009 was cancelled when the government changed the process through which capital projects are approved in 2012, and made school boards resubmit project proposals. The AVRSB did not receive funding for any capital projects to be undertaken in the 2013-14 year.
Brown asked the school board to keep fighting for the renovations at TMPDS, and consider sending Windsor Forks students to the Windsor Elementary School if there is no way to keep that school open.
“Wouldn’t this be cheaper, faster and more practical than to spend money on a new building?”
Brown said there are about 215 students enrolled in the Windsor Elementary School, and 159 attending Windsor Forks. Alluding to the school board’s argument that changes are necessary due to enrolmentdeclines, she noted that declines inenrolment could actually benefit Windsor Forks’ students as the portables at the school may no longer be required if the student population decreases.
Following Brown’s lead, Hants West MLA Chuck Porter was the next to share his thoughts on the subject.
“What I saw tonight was an awful lot of talk about a new school, and not a lot of talk about renovations,” said Porter, to applause.
Porter expressed concern that the school board has been mulling the idea of building a new elementary school in the area since the closure of NSDS was announced about a year ago. He said he fears a decision may have already been reached that does not reflect the wishes of the community.
“It almost sounds like a done deal. If we are moving forward to a proposal for a new school, tell us,” he said.
AVRSB chairperson Lavinia Parrish Zwicker stressed that no decision has been made, but the board has spent a fair amount of time researching all of the options to ensure the best decision is made for students in Windsor Forks, Three Mile Plains and Newport Station.She promised Porter the AVRSB is committed to “putting students first.”
Under questioning from the public, the AVRSB representatives said larger classrooms do not mean larger class sizes. Primary to Grade 3 classes can have up to 25 students, while Grade 4 to Grade 9 classrooms max out around the 28-student mark. Primary/Grade 1 split classes can take up to 22 students, and split classes including students in Grades 1 to 4 can have no more than 25 learners. The number of split classes in a school depends on demographics.
What happens to staff, empty schools
Eleanor Beaton, a mother of two with one school-aged child attending Windsor Forks, said she was initially opposed to the idea of replacing the small schools with a larger institution, but she has since changed her mind. However, she worries what will happen to the “terrific staff”at Windsor Forks.
Tait said human resources procedures would be followed to determine which staff members would become a part of the new school.
“They do make all three schools what they are,” she agreed.
Two Three Mile Plains students spoke out against their school being closed, saying they love it “just the way it is.”
One mother, a parent of a child with a medical condition, said she feels more comfortable leaving her child at a school where everybody knows everybody, and most of the staff members are familiar with the individual needs of the children.
Roy McIntyre, who has children attending both TMPDS and WFDS, feels his child with autism would be better served in a larger school.
“My concern with the schools that were created in 1963 is… they are not set up for children with disabilities. It’s great to have a small school and be able to have that feel where everybody knows your kid but, at the same time, when my son has to be taken out of class… there’s not a whole lot of space for someone like him to go to,” he said.
“And my hope with all of this is that a new school is going to be a whole lot more accommodating.”
TMPDS was constructed in 1963, and WFDS was built in 1964.
McIntyre was one of just two people to raise a hand in favour of a new school being built when Richard Dauphinee, the warden of West Hants, asked the audience who wants a new school.
“I’m not hearing too many people in favour of change here tonight,” the warden began, to applause.
“They’d sooner see it stay the same.”
The taxpayers living in the Municipality of West Hants would eventually foot the bills for the demolition of the three empty schools, the warden noted.
“It’s not cheap to tear down a school.”
Dauphinee, the council representative for Three Mile Plains and Windsor Forks, said the municipality recently put $20,000 into trails at TMPDS, and supported a $30,000 playground upgrade at WFDS.
Paul Brown, a resident of Three Mile Plains’ district, asked the three school board members representing West Hants to respect the wishes of their citizens when it is time to vote on the future of the small schools.
“You guys were assigned and were elected in to represent, so please take it with you and represent your constituents here tonight. Don’t make decisions based on your own mindset or what you think may be right,” he said.
“You’ve been elected in and put there to represent the people, so… please represent the people and do your job.”