Oxford a target in school review | The Herald

“Imagine our schools open.”That was just one of the slogans splashed across signs, sashes and T-shirts Wednesday night as parents and children marched their way down a hallway and into the Dartmouth High auditorium to hear what consultants hired by Halifax regional school board have proposed for schools on the peninsula and other parts of the municipality.

But once they settled into their seats for the special school board meeting, hundreds of concerned citizens sat back silently as they listened to lead consultant Maureen O’Shaughnessy present an amended proposal to one-man school board Howard Windsor and superintendent of schools Carole Olsen.

The proposal puts 12 elementary and junior high schools up for review, including four on the peninsula. It suggests consolidating Cole Harbour and Auburn Drive high schools, keeping one of the sites for alternative education. It also suggests building a new high school to serve the Eastern Passage, Shearwater and Woodside communities.

Although most of the recommendations remain the same, Ms. O’Shaughnessy and her team from Toronto firm CS&P Architects made some changes to their proposed 10-year facilities master plan. That includes reviewing Oxford School instead of St. Catherine’s School on the peninsula, a subject parents debated at a public meeting Feb. 19.

Before the meeting kicked off, Mr. Windsor reminded those in attendance that the plan presented to the board is not set in stone.

There was no opportunity for feedback Wednesday night, but parents have another chance to speak out at two upcoming public submissions meeting, which are scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on March 17 and 19 at the school board office on Alderney Drive in Dartmouth.

“This is a board meeting and therefore there should be no demonstrations,” Mr. Windsor warned parents who had been chanting “no schools, no communities” and carrying hand-painted protest signs.

Some children even decorated their own T-shirts for the occasion, proudly showing off colourful statements such as “Joseph A. McKay, we’re here to stay.”

But despite the obvious dissent, Mr. Windsor told reporters after the meeting that he was happy with how those in attendance behaved during Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s formal presentation.

“I was very impressed in terms of the way in which people clearly listened, very intensely, to what the consultants were saying,” he told reporters. “Given the amount of passion around schools, it was an enormously respectful meeting. I thought people were very thoughtful.”

During her presentation to the board, Ms. O’Shaughnessy made several other suggestions, including turning Citadel High School into a centre of excellence for the arts and making the new Eastern Passage high school a centre of excellence for technology and skilled trades. There should also be child care available in all high schools, she added.

She emphasized the importance of short walking distances, neighbourhood schools and school sizes that are small enough so that everyone knows each other but large enough to provide valuable educational programming. She said elementary schools should hold about 300 students, junior high school students should accommodate about 500 students and high schools should shoot for 1,000 students.

“When we started talking to the community there was this fear that there was going to be tearing down of schools, and tearing down three schools and replacing them with one big school, and that is not what this plan is about,” she said. “This capital plan is about providing improvements and enhancements and opportunities for every student at every school.”

When asked by Mr. Windsor how much all the recommended renovations and new construction might cost, Ms. O’Shaughnessy said the “ballpark estimate” could be between $25 million and $30 million annually over the next 10 years.

Mr. Windsor said school board staff will post their official response to the report on www.hrsb.ns.ca

by 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Anyone who wants to make a presentation at the public submissions meetings should submit their requests to do so by noon March 14.

Mr. Windsor is expected to make his final decision at the March 26 board meeting.

This is the first phase of Imagine Our Schools, an ongoing review that will look at schools across Halifax regional school board and lay out a plan for the municipality’s education system over the next decade.

“What we’ve got here . . . is the basis of a road map,” Mr. Windsor told reporters. “It will be very much driven by what’s available from the province in terms of capital dollars.”

( klipscombe@herald.ca)