04/03/2013 01:29 EDT | Updated 06/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia education minister puts halt to school closures after outcry

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's education minister has asked the province's school boards to suspend all school closures until next year, saying the review process has become adversarial and upsetting for parents and the boards.

Ramona Jennex said Wednesday all closures decided in the most recent fiscal year and all pending reviews will be put on hold until a new, fairer process is developed.

A discussion paper for public input will be ready this fall, she said, and the new process is expected to be in place by next spring, which means the thorny issue will likely be put off until after the next election.

The NDP government's five-year mandate runs out in June 2014 but it is expected to call an election sometime this year

Four schools were slated for closure either this year or in 2014. Three of those schools are part of the Chignecto Central Regional School Board.

As well, another 22 elementary and high schools were identified for review in 2013-14, half of them schools in the Chignecto region.

Jennex said she made her decision after hearing from parents, school boards and municipalities who have called for an overhaul.

"It's supposed to be a collaborative process, but it's been adversarial and very upsetting to communities," she said outside the legislature.

Jennex said the government had earlier "tweaked" the process to make it more collaborative, but those changes did not go far enough.

When asked if the government was trying to avoid dealing with the inevitable political pain that comes with closing schools, Jennex said: "This is not going to save every school in the province. It's process that needs to be improved."

The issue has also divided some school boards who were told by Jennex to find savings in their budgets.

"We cannot have school closures just to balance budgets," she said. "A school, if it's to close, is because it's not meeting the needs of the children in the community."

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said it's no coincidence the NDP government is stopping a "gut-wrenching" process on the eve of an election.

"This is all politically motivated," he said outside the legislature. "They're hoping that if they make some of these issues go away that Nova Scotians will forget about what they've done."

McNeil said the boards were forced to close schools after the government cut $65 million from the education budget.

Conservative Leader Jaimie Baillie, whose riding is part of the Chignecto region, said the minister is waking up to the fact that schools are important to rural communities.

"It's clearly a deathbed conversion on the eve of an election. It's too bad because a lot of students and parents have been put through a lot of hardship."

A spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia School Boards Association said it has to consult with the boards before taking a position on the matter.