A public meeting between the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) and residents of Isle aux Morts was emotional and heartfelt, but also calm and orderly.
At stake is the future of LeGallais Memorial.
The school is undergoing review by the NLESD due to declining enrollment. Should the school be closed, students would be bussed to either Burnt Islands or Port aux Basques.
“It’s extremely difficult circumstances,” said MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile). “It was emotional, but a measured tone.
“Stuff like this can descend into very negative circumstances, and I thought (residents) did a great job. They made a lot of good points, questioning the decision, but also questioning the process.”
Five speakers presented arguments in favour of keeping the school open, including town mayor Nelson Lillington, who spoke on behalf of the entire council.
If there was one overarching theme to the evening, it was the importance of the school not just for the children, but also for the community as a whole.
First to speak was Dawn Harvey, who took exception to the online survey and questioned renovations to the school only a few years ago that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“LeGallais Memorial is not only located at the centre of our community, but it is the heart of our community,” said Harvey. “With this school being on the verge of closure, will this mean that our community will be on the verge of closure?”
Other parents who spoke made that same point, and all shared concerns about the poor road conditions for buses, particularly in winter, and overcrowded classrooms in Port aux Basques.
School council Melanie Dominix spoke at length about the quality of programs offered by the small-town, multi-grade school, much of which is thanks to volunteers, including some who don’t have children or grandchildren in attendance.
“How many of our students moved back home from away? It is more than 30 per cent of our students,” offered Dominix. “If the school was not here, how many of these families would have decided on Isle aux Morts?”
Like Harvey, Dominix also took exception to the school review process itself. Although LeGallais is in Isle aux Morts, parents from Port aux Basques and Burnt Islands were also contacted to offer feedback.
“The only parents who should have been involved in choosing an option over where the students of LeGallais should be enrolled should be the parents of Isle aux Morts, and not the parents of the feeder schools,” argued Dominix. “Would you want another school and the parents of another community deciding on the future of your children?”
Karen Organ’s speech focused largely on financial considerations. She said sending children out of town for school would likely have a negative financial impact on some parents, as students will have to catch the only bus home immediately after school or risk being left behind unless their parents can collect them or pay for alternate transport. She said that might not be feasible, particularly for working parents.
“You can forget about extracurricular activities and extra help with studies,” said Organ. “You talk about extra savings the government will make if our school closes, but you will not pass any of those savings onto our kids with extra school buses.
“Instead, parents who want their kids to get the best possible education will have to pay for extra tutoring and transportation. Whatever way you look at it, the cost will lie with us, not you.”
Michelle Keeping, who grew up in Isle aux Morts and has worked at the school for the past 16 years as a pre-school teacher and family resource coordinator, made perhaps the most heartfelt speech of the evening.
She spoke about the personal impact on some children who need extra help, like her daughter, who was diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety and ADHD.
“Every day is a different day for her,” said Keeping, who believes a larger class size will hinder her child’s development. “My daughter will become just another kid. Will she slip through the cracks because she’s out of her comfort zone? Many parents feel the same way as I do, and we’re afraid.”
Mayor Nelson Lillington shared council’s concerns about the long-term social and economic effect on the town.
“While just a small amount, about $4,200, the loss of revenue from having a school in Isle aux Morts will have a direct impact on the budget of this town,” said the mayor.
“Of greater concern to the town council is the impact the school closing will have in trying to sustain a vibrant and attractive community for families, future development, visitors, business and community members.”
Council feels its plans for new growth through upgraded infrastructure will be undermined by the loss of LeGallais, and that reduction of demand for services and housing as families choose to settle elsewhere will not only reduce the overall wealth of residents, but eventually destabilize the community.
Lillington also spoke about council’s ongoing fight with the owner of the abandoned fish plant; the town fears a similar battle should LeGallais be left to rot also.
“What is the plan for disposal of this building should the school close? Will the town have a vacant building that will sit for years and in a state of decay that will cause safety issues? We already have one major eyesore in the community,” said Lillington.
Deanna Dicks has three children currently attending LeGallais.
“I choked back tears,” admitted Dicks about some of the more heartfelt moments of the presentations.
“It’s stressful, not only as a parent but for my kids as well.”
Like Keeping, one of her children also needs a bit of help and she’s frightened he will slip between the cracks. Her youngest is painfully shy, she says, and needs months each year just to adjust to a new teacher.
“I’m scared. I’m so scared,” said Dicks, who believes the entire process is a fait accompli and that the NLESD is only going through the motions because of necessary protocol.
“I really do think they’ve got their mind made up, but hopefully what was said tonight had some impact on them, that it struck to the heart of them, because it did me.”
That’s not so, claims Wayne Lee, vice-chair of the board of trustees for the NLESD and trustee for Zone 6, which covers the St. James Regional High School System that includes LeGallais Memorial.
“It was IF we close, not WHEN we close,” said Lee about the wording of the online survey.
Lee explained that the NLESD tried to shorten the consultation process a bit by assuming everyone would want to keep LeGallais open, and that the question was only put forth to pre-determine if there was a preferred alternative should LeGallais close.
He is aware that the public believes the NLESD has already reached a final decision, but is adamant that is not the case.
“This is a very important point. I’d like to indicate that no decisions have been made at this time,” said Lee. He says the trustees will take everything they heard into consideration.
For now, the process is to collate feedback and summarize it for the trustees prior to the final meeting.
“We make some points for the trustees to consider, then we discuss things,” said Anthony Stack, interim CEO/director of education. “That will inform the process for the vote. It’s important to note that status quo is still an option, so the school may still remain open or it may close. And the next piece of that is, if it does close, which direction do they go? So, there’s two pieces to it. But status quo is still on the table.”
“The decision has not been made. I haven’t decided,” agreed Lee. “We do care what people think.”
The final decision on whether to close LeGallais Memorial will take place at a public meeting of the trustees in St. James on Feb. 3. The meeting will be made available online via a live stream. Details of the live stream will be made available to parents through the school.