04/12/2013 10:55 EDT | Updated 06/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia premier says request to reverse school closures is legal

HALIFAX - Assertions by Nova Scotia's school boards that it would be illegal for them to abide by the government's request to suspend school closures are wrong, Premier Darrell Dexter says.

Dexter responded Friday to complaints from the Nova Scotia School Boards Association that reversing its decisions to close schools would contravene the Education Act.

The association says the law requires boards to finalize decisions on school reviews by March 31, a position Dexter said was a narrow interpretation of the Act.

"They always say, 'You put four lawyers in a room, you're going to get four different opinions on what the law actually means,'" he said.

"They are, in my view, hanging it on this question of the provisions of the Act. That may be convenient for them, but ultimately it is their decision."

Dexter said the government would not take measures, such as revising the law, to force the school boards to comply with its request.

His comments came after the South Shore Regional School Board voted Thursday night to shut down the Gold River-Western Shore Elementary School in July, reaffirming its decision from March 27.

Education Minister Ramona Jennex, who asked the boards last week to hold off on their school closures, said she did so because the review process had become too adversarial and upsetting for parents and the province's eight school boards.

The school boards association has said the request left boards wondering how they could comply. But association president Jamie Stevens said Friday that Dexter's position now makes it easier for all of the school boards to proceed with their decisions to close schools.

"I think they will be more at ease at making the decision without feeling any kind of threat," said Stevens.

Liberal education critic Karen Casey said the government's request has put the boards in an unfair position after they went through the difficult public process of closing schools.

"I'm glad they stood up for what they believe was right and what the Education Act says they must do," she said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie accused the government of mismanaging the situation, saying no one should be surprised that the South Shore Regional School Board decided to move ahead with its planned closure given the legal concerns and lack of additional funding needed to keep its school open.

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.

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

Jennex said Friday she still hopes all boards will get back to her by April 30 with decisions on whether they will suspend school closures.

She said plans will proceed to develop what she called a more fair process to review schools.