If school boards don't exist, what happens to the fight over Petite Rivière school?

The decision to shutter Petite Rivière Elementary School has been challenged in court, and both sides want to know what happens now that school boards will soon cease to exist in Nova Scotia.

South Shore Regional School Board racked up 175K defending decisions in 2 separate court cases

Petite Rivière Elementary School is located about 20 minutes outside Bridgewater on Nova Scotia's South Shore. (Paige Littlefair/Facebook)

The decision to do away with school boards is causing uncertainty across Nova Scotia, but perhaps no place more than the South Shore, where the fight to save a small, rural school is playing out in court. 

The Greater Petite Area Community Association filed a judicial review in May 2017 challenging the South Shore Regional School Board's 2013 motion to close Petite Rivière Elementary School.

That case is now in the hands of a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge, who's expected to render a decision by the beginning of March. But what happens now that the board will cease to exist? 

No one seems to know for sure. 

Stephen Besaw's two older kids went through the school, which has 83 students in grades Primary to 6, and he wants his youngest to attend. 

"I guess everybody in the community holds a certain amount of support and hope for there being a resolution now that the school board is effectively not a player. Because, I mean, how can you sue something that doesn't have any authority or doesn't exist?" he said. 

'No power at this time'

Win or lose in court, Stacey Godsoe hopes the education minister will intervene and keep the school open.

"They could acknowledge that this was fumbled from start to finish, and it is a very good example of that dysfunction that they have learned so much about through the [Avis] Glaze report," said Godsoe, who's chair of the Greater Petite Area Community Association.

Stephen Besaw said there's a lot of uncertainty among parents. (Facebook/Stephen Besaw)

In addition to dissolving school boards, Education Minister Zach Churchill has also curtailed their decision-making powers.

"Quite frankly, we're being eliminated. We really have no power at this point in time," said Theresa Griffin, who took over as chair of the school board in November. 

While Churchill has said decisions around schools that were already made won't be overturned, Griffin isn't sure if that applies to a decision that's being challenged in court.

Griffin expects the judge's decision to be communicated to Churchill, and it will be up to the province to go from there, she said.

"We don't have the answers to a lot of questions at this point in time, and we're trying now to sort it out," she said. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the minister wouldn't comment as the matter is before the courts.

"This was a decision made by the elected school board within their authority at the time the decision was made," Heather Fairbairn said in an email.

The minister will consider the outcome once the judge releases a decision, she said. 

Legal costs total $175K

The South Shore Regional School Board said it's spent a total of $67,967 defending its decision to shutter Petite Rivière Elementary School, and just over $107,494 in a similar case against the Town of Bridgewater that ended last year in the board's favour.

The costs are among documents obtained by CBC News through freedom-of-information laws. 

Emails show that the board successfully applied to have its legal costs covered by the Nova Scotia School Insurance Program, a non-profit insurance exchange that member school boards pay into. 

The community has raised nearly $10,000 to fight the school board in court, said Stacey Godsoe. (Facebook/Petite for the Future)

The board still hasn't been reimbursed in full, according to a board spokesperson, who also said the costs only account for tangible legal costs, not staff time. 

The Greater Petite Area Community Association meanwhile said it's raised nearly $10,000 through crowdfunding campaigns, donations and fundraising events.

Besaw calls the board's legal bill "totally preposterous."

"Those are all funds that would be better spent … having another consultation with the community to figure out a better agreement," he said. 

Griffin doesn't argue with that. She called the roughly $175,000 legal bill "most unfortunate." 

You know, that makes dents in budgets. There's no doubt about that.- Theresa Griffin, SSRSB Chair

"You know, that makes dents in budgets. There's no doubt about that. That takes from other things," Griffin said.

She said going to court in the first place was a mistake.

"We're not happy about that. That wasn't our choice. That was the community's choice because they disagreed with the decisions of the board," she said. 

But Godsoe said despite the costs, and months of uncertainty, she sees the legal battle as a step forward. 

"We didn't take this lightly," she said. "We didn't want to put community through this. We didn't want to put the school board through this and we don't see it as us doing this to anyone. This was something we felt we had to do."

Board won Bridgewater case 

The Town of Bridgewater lost its fight against the South Shore Regional School Board last year, and was on the hook for $7,500 in compensation, according to emails.

A spokesperson for the town said it paid a total of $35,400 in its effort to stop the transfer of Grades 10-12 students from Bridgewater Jr./Sr. High School to Park View Education Centre.

During that case, the school board unsuccessfully appealed the judge's decision to let the town bring forward the case in the first place. 

Using access to information laws, CBC News obtained emails about the South Shore School Board's two recent court cases. (CBC)

The board argued letting a municipality challenge a school board set a dangerous precedent where an elected body could interfere with the decisions of another elected body. 

"It just highlights that we had an adversarial board, whether it's with Bridgewater or with us," said Besaw. "I mean, it seems like it's their way or the highway."

About the Author

Emma Smith


Emma Smith is a web writer and radio producer from B.C. who fell in love with the East Coast. She's interested in reporting on rural communities and Indigenous issues.