The francophone school district in northwest New Brunswick is grappling with a dilemma that may put it on a collision course with the Alward government’s deficit-reduction goals.

The district education council is asking the provincial government to pay for expensive renovations to the high school in Kedgwick, even though there’s plenty of room for students at another school — the Polyvalente A.-J. Savoie in nearby Saint-Quentin, just 15 minutes away.

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A crowd in Kedgwick turned out to discuss the idea of restructuring schools in the area. (Etienne Dumont / Radio-Canada)

The newer Saint-Quentin high school was built for 800 students but had only 233 enrolled at the start of this school year.

Despite that, the education council — under pressure from parents in Kedgwick — will instead ask the provincial government to pay for repairs at the school in that community.

That request comes despite repeated complaints by Finance Minister Blaine Higgs about the high cost of maintaining half-empty schools.

Benoit Cyr, a former Progressive Conservative MLA who is working with a Saint-Quentin group on the school issue, says part of the problem is a long-standing rivalry between the two communities.

“Both municipalities don’t seem to get along very well at times and they get along very well at other times,” Cyr says.

He says while the two communities interact frequently, with residents of one municipality patronizing the other’s businesses, there’s still an element of jealousy and one-upmanship, particularly among older residents in each place.

"The old ones don’t want to give anything to the other. But nowadays, in reality, we have to work together if we want things to move forward," he says.

'The old ones don’t want to give anything to the other. But nowadays, in reality, we have to work together if we want things to move forward.'- Benoit Cyr

Steeve Savoie, the member of the district education council representing the Kedgwick area, did not make himself available for an interview.

But residents of Kedgwick say talk of the 15-minute trip between the two communities is misleading. Because the school in Kedgwick draws students from a wide area, they could spend 90 minutes on the school bus each way if moved to Saint-Quentin, one man told a public meeting.

Earlier this spring, the district education council proposed a reorganization of the schools in the area, after concluding four schools — an elementary and a high school in each of the two communities — was not affordable, given declining enrolment.

The plan was to move the approximately 150 Grade 8 to 12 students at É​cole Marie-Gaétane in Kedgwick to Saint-Quentin. That might allow about 170 kindergarten to Grade 7 students at the run-down Echo-Jeunesse elementary school in Kedgwick to move into Marie-Gaétane.

The Echo-Jeunesse school, which lacks a gymnasium, cafeteria and wheelchair access, would then be demolished.

'Our schools are the souls of our community'

But the residents of Kedgwick packed a public meeting to speak against the idea of the students attending school in another village.

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Kedgwick Mayor Jean-Paul Savoie said "schools are the souls of our community" at a public meeting. (CBC)

"Our schools are the souls of our community," said Mayor Jean-Paul Savoie.

Many in the community are still angry about the closure of the local Department of Natural Resources office last year.

"I’m warning you," one man at the microphone told the education council officials on stage, "we won’t let you take our kids from us."

In May, the education council backed down, opting instead to centralize all the Kedgwick students from kindergarten to Grade 12 in the Marie-Gaétane school — a move that will require renovations in the millions of dollars.

The province's finance minister has complained publicly since he took the job in 2010 that spending on schools keeps increasing despite declines in enrolment.

"We have to look at serious changes in how we do business and how we can best deliver services … in a more effective way," Higgs said late last year.

MLA criticizes reversal

Martine Coulombe, the Progressive Conservative MLA for the area, made the same point when she waded into the Saint-Quentin-Kedgwick debate in May.

“I’m very angry today,” she said after the district education council backed away from centralizing high school students in Saint-Quentin.

“The council made a decision to keep people [in Kedgwick] happy and avoid controversy,” she said.

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Tory MLA Martine Coulombe said she was "very angry" after the district education council backed away from its plan to centralize high school students in Saint-Quentin. (CBC)

Coulombe pointed out high school students in Kedgwick have to take some courses online to quality for university applications because there aren’t enough teachers and resources to teach them at the school.

Coulombe, who is from Saint-Quentin, said centralizing all the students in the high school there would concentrate more resources in one place and improve the quality of education.

“Did [the district council] think about the needs of the students?” Coulombe asked in an interview with Radio-Canada.

“Absolutely not. When our children go to university or community college, they may have difficulty if they’re not able to take the appropriate high school courses.”

She pointed out the communities of Atholville, St. Arthur and Val d’Amour recently agreed to replace three aging elementary schools with a single, modern regional school.

But after an angry reaction in Kedgwick to Coulombe’s comments, she also backed down and apologized.

Though Higgs has complained repeatedly about the cost of maintaining half-empty schools, the Alward government hasn’t always acted on his comments.

In 2010, 500 high school students from the Polyvalente Ronald-Pépin in Campbellton were temporarily moved to schools in Atholville and Dalhousie when structural flaws were discovered in their school.

Despite ample space in those other schools to accommodate the students permanently, the provincial government spent $8.5 million to repair Ronald-Pépin.

The district will have to decide how much of a priority the Kedgwick renovations represent compared to other items on its spending wish list. Districts have to rank their proposals so that the provincial government can assess which ones need funding the most.

Complicating this year’s request for funding is that a provincial election will be held in September, while the budgeting process is underway.