The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board has begun the process of completing the conversion at Dr. W.A. MacLeod Elementary School to fully accommodate Grade 7 and 8 students from Highland Consolidated Middle School in Westville.
Work was to begin immediately with plans to renovate the MacLeod school, starting with a request for proposals for a design team, despite vows by Mayor Roger MacKay and his council to try to reverse the board’s decision to permanently close HCMS and keep its students at the MacLeod school in Riverton.
“This is not a done deal yet,” MacKay said following the board’s decision at its monthly meeting on Wednesday in Truro.
Fourteen of the school board’s 17 voting members attended the meeting. The vote was 12-1 with one abstention.
Stellarton-Westville board representative Ron Marks cast the dissenting vote.
The school board also voted to close East Pictou Middle School, although its decision is based on provincial funding to upgrade part of nearby Frank H. MacDonald Elementary School so that East Pictou’s Grade 7 and 8 students can move there.
The decision reflects a strong consensus from the East Pictou community to move the students.
The school board will start the MacLeod upgrades with a request for proposals for a design team. The plan is to renovate as much as possible after classes end for the summer.
Discussion regarding HCMS was tense and sometimes rancorous as board chairperson Trudy Thompson intervened when Pictou East MLA Tim Houston, Coun. Lynn MacDonald and Mayor MacKay tried at various times to speak on behalf of those in support of keeping HCMS open who rimmed the board room and an overflow seating area in the lobby.
Operations director Herb Steeves chronicled events that led to closing HCMS due to odours and the rationale for drawing the conclusion that the estimated $1.5 million cost to alleviate the odours might not fix the problem. He noted the safety standards regarding odours are higher for children than for adults and industrial workplaces.
He also referred to the fast-tracking of $3.75 million in provincial funding to upgrade the MacLeod school by the end of 2015. He said he could not be sure how fast another request would be for the $1.5 million for HCMS.
Marks first tried to have the vote on HCMS tabled until possibly next week so that board members could tour HCMS, but Thompson ruled not to entertain his motion. He then asked the board to recess to allow him to consult with the Westville delegation.
When the board reconvened, the board granted Marks’ request to allow MacKay to speak for five minutes in support of returning the HCMS students to the school in Westville. It also allowed an amendment by board member Marilyn Murray of Trenton to hear from the Town of Stellarton and the Municipality of Pictou County.
No Pictou County representative came forward, but Kevin Waller spoke for Stellarton.
“If there is a good reason for closing (HCMS), I’ll go along if it’s done in good conscience and on solid, factual evidence,” he said. “Public opinion seems in favour of Westville and MacLeod won’t be adequate no matter how much money you put into it.”
MacKay referred to part of HCMS’s impact assessment that levels for chemicals and potential contaminants were within acceptable levels.
“It is a healthy school,” he said. “It’s about community.”
Board superintendent Gary Clarke noted the work by staff to hear from presenters during five public meetings while having met separately with the Westville mayor and council and to record responses from people at those meetings, as well as emails and phone calls regarding HCMS.
“Many more voices were not here tonight,” he said.
Board solicitor Bruce MacIntosh provided counsel several times during the meeting, including on Marks’ motion to table on the grounds that any delay past the March 31 deadline for the board to decide HCMS’s fate would require the closure process to start from the beginning.
He also cautioned board members to abstain if they felt they could not make an informed decision based on the documented written and verbal presentations.
Thompson struck down another attempt by MacKay to speak before the vote was taken.
“I have attended meetings that have been difficult; this is one of them,” she said after the meeting. “We have bylaws. I hope the public respects this.”