By Richard Bell
In his first public appearance in a community getting a new school (Eastern Shore District High), Education Minister Zack Churchill made it clear that he was considering radically diminishing public input to the school site selection process in order to get new schools built as fast as the government would like. And to further muddy the waters, Churchill said that his department was also considering changing the very boundaries of the catchment area for the new high school.
Churchill was the featured guest at a May 7 meeting called by MLA Kevin Murphy to celebrate Churchill’s announcement that the province had finally decided to replace the aging ESDH. Given that a school can be, as Churchill put it, “the heart of the community,” anxieties were running high that the province might cut the heart out of Musquodoboit Harbour.
There was good reason for anxiety: back in 2014, Murphy had shocked a Musquodoboit Harbour community meeting with a proposal to move ESDH, the Musquodoboit Harbour Rink, and the Birches Nursing Home to what he called a “campus” located in the Eastern Shore Industrial Park in Chezzetcook.
Murphy’s proposal created a firestorm of resistance. Several attendees told Churchill that Musquodoboit Harbour was already a “campus,” with a library, hospital, nursing home, skating rink, and municipal building all within walking distance. But when questioned about Murphy’s “campus” concept, Churchill said, “I’m not familiar with any of those things you mentioned.”
The meeting began with brief remarks from Murphy, activist Jean McKenna, and Churchill. As Murphy recognized in introducing McKenna, she had been an indefatigable advocate for replacing ESDH for many years, writing letter after letter, attending school board meetings, and lobbying provincial officials.
Churchill spoke briefly, announced he needed to leave immediately, and stepped down from the stage. But the crowd wasn’t having it. For the next 45 minutes, a scrum of concerned people surrounded Churchill, trying to hear over the background noise how he planned to conduct the school site selection process. Churchill refused repeated requests that he go back to the stage and use the microphone so that everyone could hear.
Churchill explained that his department was revising the site selection process to eliminate any possibility that public participation would delay construction.
“Community input is really important,” he said, “but we don’t want to get in a situation like on the peninsula where it’s taken 8 years since that school was on the list to even get started because the community couldn’t agree on site. We can’t let that happen. There will be a public input component to the site selection progress, but we’re not going to do it in a way that’s going to prolong it.”
How far was he willing to go in his effort to make the building process run on time?
In the school board era, a site selection committee that included the elected school board member and some community residents drove the site selection process. But Churchill said, “There might not necessarily be a committee for site selection.”
Under the previous site selection process, site selection committees usually came up with three sites, and almost always included the existing school site as one of the three. But Churchill said he did not know whether the new process would require identifying three sites. And he equivocated on whether one of those three sites would be the current site: “The current site most likely will be one that’s up for consideration.”
Churchill even hedged about whether the process would include community meetings. “So for the site selection process, community meetings will probably play a role in that …a community meeting is one that’s always in the envelope. Online feedback which actually generate a lot more feedback than community meetings, that will be there as well.”
As he finally got close to the door, Churchill tried to reassure the crowd, saying they should understand that he was “incentivized” to “have the feedback to get a decision that people are going to be happy with. We have to find that balance between soliciting community input and not creating a process that’s going to hamper us from getting to an expedient decision point. I’m just being frank with you.”