The possible closure of Antigonish Education Centre (AEC) dominated the monthly meeting of the Strait Regional School Board (SRSB), which took place April 5 at neighbouring Saint Andrew Junior School (SAJS).
At that session, the Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Feeder System School Options Committee (SOC) presented its report, which recommends closing the P-4 school, when the lease on the facility expires in 2021.
AEC is one of the schools in the Strait region that was constructed through the P-3 – public/private partnership model. At the end of that lease, the province will have an option to purchase the building for $5.9 million.
As he opened his presentation, SOC chair Deepak Prasad noted the SRSB’s elected members would make the final decision on the feeder system, including whether or not to close AEC, and not his committee.
As part of its terms of reference, Prasad noted the SOC had to consider excess space, within the feeder system, particularly with the upcoming wind down of the AEC lease, and whether or not a request will be made to the province to purchase the building.
Prasad touched on eight scenarios the SOC considered during the process.
The first – building two new schools to replace the existing ones – was put aside because it was outside the SOC’s mandate.
Options also considered including closing other schools in the feeder system; challenges with those, such as Saint Andrews Consolidated School (SACS) and H.M. MacDonald, were geographical and current utilization.
With considering the Regional for closure, they decided the remaining schools would not have the capacity to handle the student numbers. There would also be the challenge of moving the elements of the school’s skilled trade centre.
During its third public meeting, Feb. 22, the SOC announced ‘status quo’ as its preferred option for the feeder system.
However, following their working committee meeting, March 6, the SOC announced that, after reconsideration, it decided to recommend AEC’s closure, as part of its required report to the school board.
While presenting the report, April 5, Prasad talked about having to make a decision on the suggestion that not going with the ‘status quo’ option served as a ‘breach of public trust,’ with the preferred option not being adopted as the final recommendation.
“As chair, I was asked to provide a ruling – something I have never done as a volunteer with a group,” he said.
“I ruled it was not a breach of public trust, based on the SOC presented a proposed preferred scenario, not a final recommendation.
“I did go back and review, again, the audio recordings and that was the statements that were made. At no time did the facilitator state that the preferred scenario was the final recommendation, and the final recommendation was adopted from a scenario that was presented at the public meeting number two,” Prasad added.
He noted his understanding was someone could apply to challenge his ruling, as chair, but no one did.
“It would have been highly inappropriate for the SOC to have a final recommendation before the final public meeting, as all public meetings are designed to receive feedback,” Prasad said.
At that third public meeting, the pervading theme with speakers was the desire to maintain ‘status quo’ in the feeder system.
When Prasad fielded questions from the board, veteran member George Kehoe echoed a sentiment shared by many since the SOC announced its final recommendation, saying he “got the impression” at the third public meeting that status quo – not AEC’s closure – was going to be the group’s decision.
At that third public meeting, Prasad said the SOC members “heard a lot about what was needed in classrooms and support.”
“That caused some of our committee members to go back and look at those details, once again.
“It is not an easy decision [recommending AEC’s closure] – many of our committee members lost nights of sleep on this, so it is something that we are not recommending lightheartedly; we are doing it with a lot of thought and process,” he added.
Prasad said the recommendation affects all schools in the feeder system “in some way, shape or form.”
He noted that the decision was about more than savings in operating costs for AEC.
“It is not just about the money, but to ensure the best education possible,” Prasad said.
When the SOC voted on its final recommendation, four members – Allan Armsworthy, John Blackwell, Karla Chisholm and Maria Fraser – did not support the decision. They have completed a minority report, which was included as an addendum with the SOC’s submission turned over to the board members.
At the outset of the April 5 session, Blackwell asked for an opportunity to present their report, which was denied because they had not made a request to be added to the meeting agenda within the required timeframe.
SRSB chair Francine Boudreau said they could present their report during its working committee meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday, April 19.
In an earlier release, the dissenting SOC members recommend AEC – the newest school in the feeder system – should remain open.
“The minority report also raises concerns about flawed process, lack of transparency and breach of public trust,” the release noted.
They want the SRSB to support the ‘status quo’ option because “it best addresses the health, education, and environmental needs of our students ‘within safe, equitable, and inclusive environments’ as stated in the school board’s mission statement.”
One presentation that made the agenda came from Matthew Boyd, who represented a group of parents and community members against the possible AEC closure.
He submitted that the review process had a built-in bias because one of the guidelines for the SOC was the consideration of the need for AEC.
As for AEC’s operating costs, Boyd said it accounts for approximately 0.6 per cent of the SRSB’s annual budget.
“AEC is well used,” he added, noting its utilization rate is currently 70 per cent.
Boyd said they are puzzled why the SOC would recommend – and the board consider – closing the “newest of the schools” in the Regional feeder system.
If AEC closes, he noted moving those students to the SAJS would create the largest Grade primary to six school in the province, with a projected enrolment of 670 students.
Boyd added, with the reconfiguration, grade seven to nine students would be in the largest school in the province.
Noting the price tag to purchase AEC, at the end of the lease, Boyd said the costs associated with the required changes with its closure need to be considered more strongly.
As part of the school review process, board staff must complete a technical report, one related to any recommendation made by the SOC.
SRSB superintendent Ford Rice, who presented it during the April 5 meeting, described it as “a neutral report to inform the board’s decision,” which outlines the implications of opting for an AEC closure.
If the board decides to close AEC, he said the Regional will house grades seven to 12, while the other three schools – HM MacDonald, Saint Andrew Consolidated and SAJS – would become Primary to six facilities.
With that reconfiguration, Rice said the buildings could accommodate the student population but it would be “relatively tight.”
Rice said the technical report recommends adding 5,700 square feet to SAJS.
He added there would have to be accommodations made for younger students, with a move to SAJS, including installations of cubbies, fountain and washroom modifications and the creation of ‘play-based’ classrooms, along with ‘calming’ and ‘active’ rooms.
There would also be the need for a special needs washroom lift and relocation of the community-supported, adaptive playground from AEC to SAJS.
Current laboratory space at SAJS would be re-purposed because they would not be required with the move by higher grades to the Regional.
At the Regional, the reconfiguration would include moving the administration offices from the second to first floor, which would help accommodate the need for an expanded cafeteria.
In answering the question of the process, as Boyd suggested, being “skewed towards [closing] AEC,” Rice said the provincial education department requires a decision by April 30, in terms of possibly purchasing the building.
“Not in any way, shape or form,” he said, in commenting on if the process had a negative slant towards closing the school.
He reminded the SRSB had explored extending AEC’s lease for five years, beyond 2021, but the education department denied that request.
Board members also questioned Rice about the projected cost for the changes that would be required, if AEC closes.
He said it “depends on where they are located.”
Rice noted, with preliminary exploration, it is estimated a SAJS addition would cost an estimated $300 per square foot.
He reminded that tenders for such projects could not be called for until a final decision was made on the feeder system.
After the formal presentations, the board offered the gallery – which numbered approximately 100 – an opportunity to ask questions.
A common thread was, as people stepped to the microphone, if it was “the best decision to close our newest school.”
Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher talked about the possible loss of community space, with an AEC closure. She also asked what percentage of the anticipated savings with such a move would “stay in Antigonish.”
Rice said that could not be anticipated, at this point, but he noted the costs that would be involved in making the required changes in the new-look feeder system.
Russell Wyeth touched on the staff technical report, particularly why the changes, with an AEC closure, would not increase the operating costs at the remaining schools in the feeder system.
Rice noted operating costs, including utilities and maintenance, would remain constant. He said areas, such as custodial staffing, are determined by the size of the building.
Wyeth, and several speakers after, suggested having more people in the building would mean higher operating costs.
Another common theme during the public question period – the tight deadline for making a decision – was one Leanna Braid wanted addressed.
Describing it as a “short timeline,” she noted the uncertainty with costs associated with an AEC closure, including what she has heard would be the need to purchase a piece of land to accommodate moving the playground to SAJS.
“We already have all of these things [at AEC],” she said, in commenting on the modifications recommended by the staff technical report to accommodate the younger students’ move to SAJS.
Braid also talked about the possible “cost of disruption to the students,” as these changes would be taking place.
Related to that, she offered, doing such changes in chunks would “significantly increase costs.”
Braid said the “real costs” of closing AEC, over the long run, need to be considered, while reiterating concerns over the timeline for a board decision greatly affecting being able to, effectively, carry out such a process.
“Will we end up spending more?” she offered.
Heather Carson said the process has had “very little consideration for the human element.”
“What about the social cost?” she added.
Carson suggested moving the younger students to SAJS would necessitate having more than one ‘calming’ room.
“There has to be other options that can be considered to preserve our newest school,” she said.
Rhonda Semple suggested the future of the now 50-year-old Regional has to garner more consideration in the process.
“There is a bigger picture not being taken into account,” she said.
Semple added it seems “decisions are being made in reaction and not with forward thinking.”
The SRSB will hold its working committee meeting Wednesday, April 19, while Boudreau noted members will come together to discuss the options – and all information – on several other occasions.
In a special meeting, which is set for Wednesday, April 26, the elected board will vote on the recommendation.
Blackwell requested the SRSB hold those meetings in Antigonish.
“We have only begun to scratch the surface,” he said.
Boudreau said the meetings have been scheduled for SAERC in Port Hawkesbury, where the board’s head office is located, and will remain so.