By Tina Comeau
There were tears when the Tri-County Regional School Board made its decision on the school reviews of Barton and Weymouth elementary schools during a March 27 meeting, but they were tears of relief and happiness, and with the tears came the cheers.
The school board voted unanimously to keep Weymouth Consolidated School open and a majority of board members voted to do the same for Barton Consolidated School.
Two other schools that have been under review for the past year will close at the end of this school year. The Yarmouth Junior High will close with the Grade 9 students going to the new Yarmouth high school being built on Forest Street.
Westport School in Digby County will also close at the end of this school year.
The last school to come up for a vote at a March 27 special board meeting was Yarmouth Junior High. While a study committee of the school concluded that the school should stay open, it was noted that there was little other correspondence, dialogue or public pressure received by school board in favour of or against keeping the school open.
Given that a new high school will open in September and it has been built to accommodate students in Grades 9 to 12, board members who spoke said it didn’t make sense to keep the Grade 9 students in an aging building, at an expense to the school board, when a brand new school with new technology and other features is ready to receive them in September.
The vote to close Yarmouth Junior High was unanimous.
Asked after the meeting what the board’s decision means in terms of staffing at the new high school – and the implication of that on the current staff at Yarmouth Junior High – school board superintendent Lisa Doucet said the staffing process is part of the upcoming budget process and that at this stage the staffing allotment at the new high school is not known.
The decision about Yarmouth Junior High was not surprising, but going into the meeting how the board would vote on the Digby County schools was less clear.
School board members, however, decided it would not be in the best interest of the students at Weymouth School to close the school and move them into St. Mary’s Bay Academy, which would have had to see an addition constructed to it house the new students. Some board members did not like the idea of making the school a Grade Primary to 12 school, saying they don’t feel that younger students should be mixed in an environment with older students.
Others doubted any construction at St. Mary’s Bay Academy would truly benefit the students.
School board member Ron Hines said the decision to close Weymouth School would have been a lot easier for him if he felt assured that an addition the province would build onto St. Mary’s Bay Academy would include a larger cafeteria and a space for an elementary school gymnasium program, given that they would be sending about 250 elementary students to St. Mary’s Bay.
He noted a P-12 school in his area has had space problems from the start.
“If I could trust the province to do it right, the decision would be easy. I can’t. So the decision is easier, keep Weymouth school open,” he said.
Board member Joan Brewer said Weymouth school impresses her by the high level of use by the community and the fact there is clearly an amazing sense of pride by the students and staff of the school. And all other board members also saw no benefit to students by closing the school.
“The decision we make tonight will have an impact on not one, but two schools,” said board member Faye Haley. “I don’t believe the result would be positive for any group of students.”
As board members around the table, one by one, indicated their support for keeping Weymouth School open, it became evident before the vote was even taken that the school would not be closed.
Not as evident during the discussion, however, was the situation involving Barton Consolidated School, as there were split opinions being expressed around the table.
In that case, some board members felt that while the school was a good facility and its students are receiving a great education, the fact that school board was losing small school funding from the province to aid in the operation of Barton made the situation problematic. While the board’s motto is ‘Students First’ some board members said this meant putting the needs of all students in its boards first, as opposed to just the 50 or so who attend Barton School. Money the board has to spend on this small school and its small population means less money that can be spread around to other schools in its region.
When speaking about Barton and Westport schools, school board member Anne Moses admonished the Department of Education and the province for the situation it has put school boards in by changing the funding to small schools, while at the same time producing advertisements that it shows on television depicting schools with a heart around them.
“The ad says our children deserves their schools to be the heart of their community . . . and I believe that they certainly do,” she said. But yet the province doesn’t back that up with funding.
Moses noted as a grandparent, Barton school is exactly the type of school she would want for her grandchildren.
“That is what our provincial government tells us our children deserve,” she said, when speaking about Barton and its environment and its academic programs. “But in fact it is not what they are paying for.”
Moses noted the most recent costing for keeping Barton School open for the next school year is almost $197,000, “and although I fully recognize that this school plays a vital role in sustaining the identity of the community, and that the sense of loss to the students and the community would be very, very difficult. I feel that the government, by its elimination of small school funding to Barton, has taken away all of our options and has tied our hands as a board.”
But board member Brian Noble said every once in a while a board has to look at a government and say to them that they are wrong. This was one of those times, he said, and he also said the school board would be wrong to close this school.
School board chair Donna Tidd summed up the situation with Barton this way, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Although four board members voted to close the school, the majority of members voted to keep it open, drawing applause from the floor, as some parents wept with relief.
In the case of Westport, school board members said they do have concerns over the ferry rides students will have to take to attend a different school and this is something they want to explore further with the Department of Transportation, but the school has an extremely small population and it was hard for board members to justify spending money on one school which, this year, has a one teacher and three students. That, they said, hurts all other schools that could use more funding. Next year, and for two years after that, there would only be one student attending Westport School. School board chair Donna Tidd said for her, it was too much to isolate that one student. She said part of the school experience is going to school with your peers.
The decision to close Westport School was unanimous.