WENTWORTH – One more year. Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School has been given a stay of execution until June 30, 2014. Between now and then, someone – the community or another party – needs to present the board with a financial plan to keep the small school afloat.
The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board voted March 20 to close four schools. Bass River will close at the end of this school year, but the other three, including Wentworth, have been given more time.
It wasn’t an easy decision for board members, according to CCRSB spokesperson Debbie Buott-Matheson.
“They were torn back and forth,” she said.
The decision to close in 2014 is not irrevocable.
“That decision can be rescinded,” she said.
The initial question under consideration at the meeting was a choice between closing the school in 2013 or not closing it. Board member Ron Marks asked for, and got, an amendment: the vote would be to close the school in 2014 or not close the school at all.
Buott-Matheson said the community hub model is an option Wentworth may look at to secure greater funding for the school. Under that scenario, school resources – classroom space, for example – are used by community partners who pay for the privilege (the board has a veto option over proposed uses).
The spokesperson was unsure if the board could simply accept cash from the community to be used for the school, but thought there would be limitations on such a gesture. Likewise offers to do large-scale repairs.
“There are processes that we are bound to,” she said, referring to provincial procurement guidelines.
Cecil MacLeod led the school’s study committee response to the board’s impact assessment, and has been opposed to the school’s closure.
“We staved off (closure) for another year,” he said.
When asked if he thought the board was passing the financial buck, he replied vehemently.
“Are they ever!”
He questioned when the board would take steps to help the community generate income through a community hub program, and questioned whether the hub option was even feasible for the school.
“How’s that going to work?” he asked, in a school he said has no extra room and is expecting student population growth in coming years.
He offered a hypothetical quandary: If they shut the library to make it available for rent, would they then find themselves facing closure by the board because they didn’t have a library for students?
MacLeod expressed his thanks to Marks for suggesting the extension.
“His support was more than appreciated.”
Margie Nicholson, the board member for Wentworth, has faced some criticism over the school review process for not being vocally opposed to closure. MacLeod said he was happy to hear she’d voted against closure altogether, but that the verdict on her representation of the district “remains to be seen.” The father said it hinges on the effort she puts in this coming year to help the school survive. If she steps up to help, she’ll be welcomed with open arms, he said.
For Nicholson’s part, she said she’s happy with the result and she’ll do whatever she can to help keep the school open.
“I’ll be at every meeting,” she said.
She’s feeling optimistic about the reprieve, despite voting for the school being spared completely.
“I think this will work,” she said.
She questioned the notion the building has no room for flexibility. As an example, she floated the idea music classes might be offered in the gym, opening up the current music room for other activities.
Jamie Baillie, the MLA for the riding and leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, said the year may be all the school needs to survive.
“…Sometime in the next year, there will be a provincial election. If chosen Premier, I will invest in our rural schools.”
When asked if he’d offer a more explicit commitment to keeping Wentworth open, he responded, “I would ensure funding to recognize the economic importance of small community schools…(Wentworth), and other schools that are vital to local economic renewal, would all benefit and remain open.”
The school board claims shutting Wentworth school and busing students to another community will save $243,996 annually. They would also avoid near-term maintenance and repairs totaling about $160,000.