Published on March 20, 2014
An overflow room was set up for Wednesday's night school board meeting, seating many of the Westville and Stellarton residents that arrived by bus to hear the fate of Highland Consolidated.
AMANDA JESS - THE NEWS
TRURO – The bus back to Westville was not a quiet ride, after approximately 50 Pictou County residents heard that the school board would be closing Highland Consolidated Middle School.
The town arranged to bring a busload of people from Stellarton and Westville to show the school board they weren’t willing to see the school shut down without putting up a fight, and they left expressing frustration with the decision.
“It’s very disappointing. From the start of the meeting, you could almost tell that this decision was made a long time ago, which is very unfortunate,” Westville Mayor Roger MacKay said after the meeting.
He recalled a recent public meeting where many spoke in favour of putting the children back in Highland. Surveys were also sent out, he said, and found that 70 per cent voted they wanted their children back at Highland.
“I don’t believe the school board was listening.”
Bill Dewtie wasn’t impressed with the way the meeting went.
He didn’t feel citizens’ opinions were heard. As a long-term member of the Westville Garden Club, he’s been in several meetings in Highland, and never experienced any of the reported odours or sickness.
Now, they meet at Walter Duggan Consolidated School.
Arthur Sinclair was also on the bus to the meeting.
He has lived in Westville all his life, and didn’t want to see the school close.
“Every school I’ve went to has been torn down.”
In March 2011 several teachers and students reported odours and a variety of symptoms believed to be caused by the building.
Potential factors were pinpointed and fixed, but to no avail. In January 2012, consultants were brought in to investigate. Staff and students were relocated to the Nova Scotia Community College Pictou campus in April.
During the summer, Dr. W. A. MacLeod underwent renovations to serve as a temporary school.
A final report on the investigation was provided to the board in November 2012, which was inconclusive on the source of the odours. However, it did identify four likely contributors.
In February 2013, the joint education and operational services committee met to discuss nine options for the school. The decision was made at that meeting not to return to Highland, which prompted a school review process, including an impact assessment report posted online garnering tens of thousands of views.
The report addressed the perception that the building is “sick,” despite being technically safe.
“There are historical experiences within the province of Nova Scotia where the standard of care for children at school is deemed to be at a higher level than for example in other non-industrial settings or with adults,” the report reads.
There were also several public meetings held on the issue.
MacKay and a Stellarton resident were each given a chance to address the board for five minutes.
Kevin Waller identified himself as a concerned parent, with one of his three children attending Highland Consolidated at Dr. W. A. MacLeod.
“If there are good reasons for closing a school, then I’m one of these people that would go along with it, so long as it’s done in good conscience and for the best of the children. But I’m not convinced of that. I’ve tried to come into this without a terrible amount of bias, but I’m concerned that the MacLeod school being an elementary school will never be suitable as a middle school.”
Ron Marks, representative for Westville and Stellarton, put forth a motion to delay the decision until board members could visit both facilities, but the motion was denied due to time restraints.
Although possible to defeat the motion to close Highland, the capital construction process was of concern.
The school board was given word from the province in late December that their capital construction submission was approved. The province committed to putting $3.7 million toward renovations for Dr. W.A. MacLeod.
They can’t be sure they would get the funding needed to renovate Highland or the amount of time it would take.
Superintendent Gary Clarke noted that the process has been long and open, and many hundreds of voices have been heard.
He said the study committee had done their work.
“Board members worked very hard to come to the right decision regarding Highland Consolidated Middle School,” said CCRSB chair, Trudy Thompson. “We strongly believe that this decision to permanently close Highland Consolidated and to renovate Dr. W.A. MacLeod, to make it a Primary to Grade 8 facility is the right one.”
After the decision was made, MacKay addressed the board, telling them it isn’t over.
He plans to discuss the town’s next move with council in the near future.
The school board also voted to close East Pictou Middle School at the meeting. That decision is dependent on funding from the province to renovate neighbouring elementary school, Frank H. MacDonald. The renovations to turn it into a suitable facility for primary to Grade 8 must be done within five years.
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