ANTIGONISH: Members of the Strait regional school board (SRSB) now have armloads of recommendations, reports and commentary to consider, in the wake of an often-heated 150-minute public discussion on the future of five schools in Antigonish and the surrounding communities.
An estimated 100 people attended the board’s latest regular meeting on April 5 at St. Andrew Junior School (SAJS), which included the presentation of the final School Options Committee (SOC) report and the board’s own staff technical report regarding the Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School feeder system, as well as a community-based presentation urging the board to reject the SOC recommendation to close Antigonish Education Centre (AEC).
The board is expected to craft a formal motion regarding the Antigonish-area feeder system at its next working committee meeting on April 19 and vote on that motion at a special board meeting on April 26, with both sessions to be held at Port Hawkesbury’s SAERC Auditorium. Should these meetings see the acceptance of the SOC’s complete recommendation, they would also result in the reconfiguration of SAJS, St. Andrew’s Consolidated School (SACS) and Maryvale-based H.M. MacDonald School (HMMS) as Grades Primary-to-6 schools, with all students from Grades 7-to-12 to be housed at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School.
During his presentation of the SRSB staff technical report, the board’s superintendent of schools, Ford Rice, confirmed that board members still have the option to approve the closure of a school other than AEC or stick with the status-quo for the feeder system.
Rice also rebuked a suggestion by the meeting’s opening presenter, Antigonish parent Matthew Boyd, who described the review process as “biased” against AEC because its parameters opened with the question of whether the board still needed the 17-year-old P3 school.
“In communications with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the board has to specifically give an answer on AEC by April 30, and that’s why that objective is written like that,” Rice countered, noting that the 2021 expiry date for AEC’s P3 lease has hastened discussions in this regard.
“It’s not in any way, shape or form to put any negative feedback or any negative slant on Antigonish Education Centre.”
Boyd’s presentation also questioned the SRSB’s projections for the five schools under review, noting that previous enrolment figures for the feeder system and the board in general have not lined up with the final numbers.
A fellow AEC parent, Heather Carson, later suggested that the board is failing to recognize “the human element” of closing the school and increasing the student populations at the remaining facilities.
“Nobody seems to be addressing the social cost of that and what that means in terms of increased stress for students,” Carson told the board in the late stages of a 30-minute public question period.
“We have a calming room at AEC – we’re going to need a lot more than one [in the proposed configuration], because the anxiety level [will grow].”
Earlier in the evening, SOC chair Deepak Prasad delivered the committee’s final majority report, noting that a minority report written by four dissenting SOC members was added to this document as an addendum. Minority report co-author John Blackwell began the April 5 meeting with a plea to place the dissenting document on the evening’s agenda. SRSB chair Francine Boudreau noted that Blackwell had failed to meet a board deadline to present the document as part of the official agenda, but was welcome to do so at the April 19 working committee meeting.
During his presentation, Prasad confirmed that he had contemplated stepping down as SOC chair in the wake of revelations that one SOC member was attempting to suppress the vote of another. He said every committee member faced a difficult choice, in terms of changing course from the status-quo option presented at the SOC’s final public meeting in February to the AEC-closure recommendation approved by a 7-4 vote at an SOC working committee meeting in early March.
“Many of our committee members lost nights of sleep on this – we’re not recommending it light-heartedly,” Prasad insisted.
“We heard a lot about what was needed in classrooms and support, and when we heard a lot of that at our last public meeting as well, that caused some of our committee members to go back and look at some of those details once again.”