Judge throws out school board's decision to close Petite Rivière school

Justice Christa Brothers ruled the South Shore Regional School Board's motion to close Petite Rivière Elementary School was unreasonable.

'I was physically shaking and definitely lots of emotion,' says chair of community group that fought closure

A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has ruled that the South Shore Regional School Board's motion to close the school was 'a violation of the duty of procedural fairness.' (Paige Littlefair/Facebook)

Parents on the South Shore who spent years fighting to save a small rural school were celebrating Tuesday after a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge ruled in their favour.

Justice Christa Brothers threw out the South Shore Regional School Board's motion to close Petite Rivière Elementary School, which has 83 students in grades Primary to 6.

"The board decisions lack clarity and reasonableness," Brothers wrote in a ruling released Tuesday. "Not only was the board confused, seeking legal advice to interpret their own motions, but there was a wider, significant effect on the community. The board created unnecessary uncertainty."

The judge's decision comes just weeks after the education minister decided to axe all of the province's English-speaking school boards.

The Greater Petite Area Community Association filed for the judicial review in May 2017, challenging a 2013 school board motion to close the school. The group argued the closure was approved on the condition a replacement school would be built. No new school is in the pipeline, but the board had refused to revisit the issue.

'We're beyond excited'

Petite Rivière Elementary School was scheduled to close at the end of this school year. 

Stacey Godsoe, chair of the association, is hopeful that will no longer happen. 

"As far as we understand, we are open in September, which is amazing and we're beyond excited … It's a huge moment for the community, a long wait, a lot of years of uncertainty," she said.

"I'm a little speechless, like, I was physically shaking and definitely lots of emotion."

Godsoe said the judge's decision validates the community's efforts to save the school, which go back to long before the court battle started. 

The Greater Petite Area Community Association said it fundraised nearly $10,000 to fight the board's decision in court. (Facebook/Petite for the Future)

Stephen Besaw lives on a farm in Petite Rivière and sent his two older kids to the school. It's where he hoped his youngest could go, too. 

"Both my wife and I feel very, very happy that now our little son doesn't have to spend many, many hours as a toddler on a bus," he said. 

Besaw bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and said parents are gathering for an impromptu party at the fire hall's pancake supper.

"It's about building a strong rural economy," he said. "[Students] develop friendships in the region, with their neighbours. They really connect with the local businesses. They can go to the beach on beach day — literally just walk to the beach."

What will the province do?

But the community still needs to find out what the decision means for the long-term security of the school, and it's calling on the Department of Education to step in and resolve the situation for good. 

"Now that the legal decision is in our favour, and with the dissolution of school boards, that really there's absolutely nothing stopping the government from kind of saving the day officially," Godsoe said. 

Education Minister Zach Churchill was not available for an interview Tuesday. A spokesperson for the department said he will need time to review the court decision before he considers next steps. 

Earlier today, CBC News reported that there was uncertainty over the fate of the school given the province's recent decision to dissolve school boards.

Pentz Elementary closing

CBC News has learned the board's legal bills totalled nearly $68,000, and that it applied to have those costs covered by school insurance, which member school boards pay into.

A spokesperson has said the board still hasn't been reimbursed in full. 

In 2013, the school board also voted to close Pentz Elementary, which is located about 10 minutes from Petite Rivière.

Pentz wasn't part of this court case and will still close at the end of the school year, the school board said earlier this week. Work is underway to transition students to Hebbville Academy, a spokesperson said.

CBC News has requested a comment from the South Shore Regional School Board on Tuesday's court ruling. 

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About the Author

Emma Smith

Reporter

Emma Smith is a journalist from B.C. who has covered rural issues and Indigenous communities. Before joining CBC Nova Scotia in 2017, she worked as the editor of a community newspaper. Have a story idea to send her way? Email emma.smith@cbc.ca