WENTWORTH – It must have been uncomfortable.
Members of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board filled the first row of chairs in the small gymnasium at Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School Tuesday.
It was an Education Act-mandated public hearing before the board votes on whether to close the community’s only school.
The board could not take questions or provide answers, but they did sit through about 30 five-minute presentations from the community and politicians – speeches punctuated by emotion but many of them substantial, as well: criticisms of the board’s impact assessment report, fears of unacceptably long bus rides if the school is closed, alleged road blocks hindering the preparation of the study committee’s response to the impact assessment, and impassioned plea after impassioned plea not to close a school that many say is vital to Wentworth’s future.
The Amherst Daily News spoke with the board’s chairwoman, Trudy Thompson, on Wednesday, as well as with Margie Nicholson, the board member who represents Wentworth.
Thompson responded to many of the criticisms offered by speakers at the previous night’s event.
The board’s report predicted student numbers at the school would drop in the next few years to a dozen, but critics say a door-to-door census indicates enrollment will grow by 300 per cent.
“People move in and out,” said Thompson, and predictions are only made tangible when students show up at the start of the year.
But the chairperson acknowledged the board received new numbers in September that indicated the community’s estimate was fairly accurate.
“Always address the worst case scenario first,” said Thompson, in response to the argument made by a resident that the school’s roof didn’t need total replacement, hence keeping the school open wouldn’t cost as much as predicted.
Thompson said if there were issues with transmitting requested information, cuts in administrative staff – 20 per cent, according to her – could have been a factor. And the chairperson said it’s the board’s goal to get every child to school in an hour or less – speakers used different numbers at the meeting, ranging from 90 minutes to two hours – but didn’t provide a guarantee.
Fairness to all students within the board is a priority and budget constraints must be a consideration, she said.
The chairperson came to the defense of Margie Nicholson.
“Margie has a great belief in the education system,” said Thompson.
Margie Nicholson was also reached by phone. She remarked on the passion of those who attended the Tuesday evening meeting.
“They want to keep their school, that’s for sure,” she said. “I could just hug them and cry.”
The board member for Wentworth voted for the school to continue in the closure review process, which has invited criticism from the school’s defenders. But closing the school is not her desired outcome, she said. Nicholson said she will be voting to keep the school open.
The board member said voting against the continued review wouldn’t have prevented it and she expressed her desire to see new ideas generated within the community.
“I’m hoping for the best,” she said.“That school is in fairly good condition.”
Cecil MacLeod chaired the Wentworth study review committee – the community group tasked with answering the board’s impact assessment. He spoke against the closure at the meeting and again on the phone Wednesday morning.
“I know the ones that aren’t going to vote (to spare the school),” said MacLeod.
The father said he’s good at reading people and he was observing the board members during the presentation. The majority of board members, in his view, were engaged with the proceedings, which impressed him. A minority, though, he thought were dismissive.
MacLeod said the process pits people against each other, and he charged board staff with not effectively keeping the elected board members in the loop about communications between his committee and staff. If communication between the community and the board had been more open, even before the impact assessment was completed, the relationship might have been more cordial, he said.
“They’re not getting proper information,” he claimed.
He singled out certain board members for praise, among them Vivian Farrell and Adam Davies.
The board’s spokesperson, Debbie Buott-Matheson, wouldn’t commit to unequivocally guaranteeing children two hours or less spent on the bus each day.
“It is the job of operational services staff…to get students from point A to point B in an hour or less. This is successfully accomplished across our Board and there is no reason to think that this would not be the case in Wentworth,” she countered.
The reason for preventing MacLeod’s committee from conducting their own inspection of the roof was that they would not be covered by insurance, she said.