11/26/2013 12:50 EST | Updated 01/26/2014 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia releases paper to improve divisive issue of school closures

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's Education Department released a discussion paper Tuesday that floats ideas on how to improve the school closure process as the provincial government grapples with the problem of aging schools and a declining student population.

The paper says standard indicators would help school boards identify whether schools should close. As it stands, school boards are not required to base their school closure decisions on specific information, but they can look at population numbers, enrolment patterns and facility utilization.

The document said a standardized method would help the public understand the rationale behind school closures, which have prompted protests from parents in recent years.

Bob Fowler, a former provincial deputy minister and chairman of the province's school review committee, said the ideas in the discussion paper will be discussed at public meetings across Nova Scotia in January.

"Do people find resonance in what's there, or would they like to broaden it? Would they like to change it? Do they like the current process?" Fowler said at a news conference in Halifax.

"We have to listen to people in those broader consultations."

The public input from those meetings will help Fowler and a new committee develop recommendations for Education Minister Karen Casey, to be submitted by the end of February.

In April, then-education minister Ramona Jennex 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 school boards.

Casey said the review process will always be an emotionally-charged issue, regardless of how or if the process is changed in the spring.

"Will it ever be a process that is without anxiety? No," Casey said. "I think governments are to be commended for responding to the concerns that people bring forward."

Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax, said he was encouraged by the paper's ideas.

Bennett said communities across the province feel the criteria used by school boards is inadequate and they should also consider the impact the closure would have on the community.

"I'm really encouraged by this report because I think it opens the door for the first time to a serious policy discussion about the future of rural and small-town Nova Scotia communities," he said.

From the 2008-09 school year until 2012-13, school boards decided to close 40 schools, the discussion paper said.