Bob Fowler

Bob Fowler, a former provincial deputy minister and chairman of the province's school review committee, will discuss the ideas in the paper at nine public meetings across Nova Scotia in January. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development released a discussion paper Tuesday that floats ideas on how to improve the school closure process as the provincial government grapples with the problem of aging schools and a declining student population.

The paper said standard indicators would help school boards identify whether schools should close. As it stands, school boards are not required to base their school closure decisions on specific information, but they can look at population numbers, enrolment patterns and facility utilization.

The document said a standardized method would help the public understand the rationale behind school closures, which have prompted protests from parents in recent years.

Bob Fowler, a former provincial deputy minister and chairman of the province's school review committee, said the ideas in the discussion paper will be discussed at nine public meetings across Nova Scotia in January.

"Do people find resonance in what's there, or would they like to broaden it? Would they like to change it? Do they like the current process?" Fowler said at a news conference in Halifax.

"We have to listen to people in those broader consultations."

School board 2002-03 2007-08 2012-13 2017-18
Enrolment Trends (2002-2013) and Projection (2017-2018)
Cape Breton-Victoria 19861 16418 13839 12413
Strait 9556 7888 6816 6196
Chignecto-Central 25723 23729 21050 20094
Halifax 56742 52524 49079 48174
Annapolis Valley 16887 15466 13579 12606
South Shore 9160 7903 6852 6444
Tri-County 8611 7568 6494 5773
Acadien provincial 4059 4257 4934 5319

The public input from those meetings will help Fowler and a new committee develop recommendations for Education Minister Karen Casey, to be submitted by the end of February.

Fowler said he's already received some written submissions.

"There were people who said the process is fine, leave it alone. There were other people who said we need to reinvent it completely," he said Tuesday.

In April, then education minister Ramona Jennex asked the province's school boards to suspend all school closures until next year, saying the review process had become adversarial and upsetting for parents and school boards.

'We need a dramatic change'

Casey said the review process will always be an emotionally-charged issue, regardless of how or if the process is changed in the spring.

"Will it ever be a process that is without anxiety? No," Casey said. "I think governments are to be commended for responding to the concerns that people bring forward."

Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax, said communities across the province feel the criteria used by school boards is inadequate and they should also consider the impact the closure would have on the community.

He urged the province and school boards to put more consideration into transportation costs before they close small schools and bus students to larger ones.

"It costs more in gas for parents who drive. It increases our bus transportation. It's unhealthy. It's actually contributing to bullying because more of the bullying occurs on the buses than on the school ground," Bennett told reporters.

"All of these things suggest we need a dramatic change and if this report leads in that direction, then I'm all in favour of it."

Any new legislation designed to improve the school closure policy will have to be in place by April 1, 2014, as that's the time of year when school boards decide which schools to put on the chopping block.

Between the 2008-2009 school year and the 2012-2013 school year, boards across the province decided to close 40 schools, the discussion paper said.