By Richard Bell
Bits and pieces of the Department of Education’s new school siting policy are finally beginning to dribble into view, more than a year after Minister Zach Churchill announced that the province would be building a replacement for Eastern Shore District High School.
At the May Town Hall meeting of the Musquodoboit Harbour & Area Chamber of Commerce & Civic Affairs, Chamber Chair Kent Smith reported on a meeting he had in mid-May with Education Minister Zach Churchill, Deputy Education Minister Cathy Montreuil, MLA Kevin Murphy, and other department officials. Smith asked for the meeting in order to discuss the Chamber’s October 22, 2018 report that concluded that locating the new high school in Musquodoboit Harbour would be in the best interests of the students.
At the Town Hall, Smith said that the discussion had been a “healthy dialogue,” and that he felt the officials had been “very forthcoming with the best information they had at that time” about several of the outstanding questions, starting with the lengthy delay in producing a new site selection process.
The primary cause of the delay was what Churchill described as a “bottleneck” in the review of the proposed new policy by the Treasury Department. Smith said he came away thinking that Churchill was expecting to receive the cleared document imminently. In the meantime, Churchill said his department was proceeding as if the approval would arrive soon.
Change in Technical Review
Deputy Minister Cathy Montreuil said that there would be a significant change in the new process involving the technical review of site suitability. In the previous site selection process, the School Board would select three possible sites, one of which was almost always the existing school site, and then do a technical review of all three sites before proceeding. Montreuil said that the new site selection process would begin with a technical review of the existing site. If the site passed the technical review, then the new school would be built on the existing site. (Several of the newer schools in HRM have been built on existing sites, including Duncan MacMillan in Sheet Harbour.)
Large Site Not Required
Some critics of the Chamber’s site selection report claimed that no site in Musquodoboit Harbour would be suitable because the Province was looking for at least a 50 acre site. (Murphy had recommended such a large site in his controversial proposal back in 2014 with his proposal for a “campus” containing a new high school, a new home for the Birches, and a new sports facility, to be located in the Eastern Shore Industrial Park. The Community Campus Vision Association took up the cry for a large “campus,” although not necessarily in the Industrial Park.)
“The answer was No,” Smith said. There was no 50-acre requirement in the planning for the new school site. Murphy then said that the large site had been his notion.
Smith then asked whether the department would be willing to consider a site on donated land. One of the attractions of the Industrial Park was that the Province already owned the land, as opposed to having to purchase land.
As it happens, two landowners in Musquodoboit Harbour have offered to donate land in the very area that the Chamber’s report identified as a potential site if the existing site was unsuitable, in the area between the Railway Station and the rink. Archie Rose has offered a 10-acre parcel, and Scott Rowlings has offered a 10-15 acre parcel that abuts Rose’s land, creating a potential 20-25 acre site.
“Both the Minister and the Deputy Minister thought that getting donated land was amazing,” Smith said. “The Minister even said it was ‘cool.’” The donors would have to transfer the land to the Crown, which would turn it over to the Education Department.
Montreuil said she was concerned that the Chamber would be unhappy if the Department chose a site other than the one indicated on the Chamber plan. Smith assured her that the Chamber would be happy with any location in Musquodoboit Harbour.
In response to questions about collaboration during the site selection process, Smith said that there would be some, “but limited. There will not be a free for all. It will be very formal, but it will allow people to be heard.”
Replacing Gaetz Brook and Beaux-Marais
In response to a question from the floor, Smith said that there was only a brief discussion of some of the other suggestions and rumours that have been floating around about replacing Gaetz Brook or the École des Beaux-Marais. “There’s been no announcement about these other schools,” Smith said. “If they make up a new capital budget, and decide to include Gaetz Brook, that could change how things work out.” (Beaux-Marais is number one on the list for new French schools, but that there are constitutional restrictions on locating French and English schools together.)