Karen Casey said school boards would be required under legislation introduced Wednesday to develop a long-term regional plan that includes groups of schools identified for review. The changes were prompted by recommendations from a public review committee led by Robert Fowler, a former provincial deputy minister.
Casey said extending the planning process for school closures is key to taking into account community concerns and restoring trust after past decisions sparked public outcry.
Last April, then-education minister Ramona Jennex asked the province's school boards to suspend all school closures until this year, saying the review process had become adversarial and upsetting for parents and school boards.
"There should be no surprises when a school board talks about a particular school," said Casey.
"We know that you cannot legislate trust, but we will begin to try to rebuild the trust through a new process."
She said a local school review committee would conduct reviews of each group of schools and examine what they believe are the best solutions with the help of a facilitator provided by her department.
Alternatives to closure could involve consolidating schools, building new ones or an examination of grade configurations within a family of schools, she added.
Casey said reports and recommendations would be prepared by the committee — not school board staff, parents and the community. School boards would remain responsible for deciding whether a school should be closed.
She said no schools are currently under review and none can be put forward until the new process is in place, likely by September.
Fowler said Wednesday while he believes the emotion stirred by school closures can never be eliminated, inclusion is essential.
"A more inclusive process will make it better, more understandable and more based in fact as opposed to different points of view," said Fowler.
He said long-term planning would help provide an early warning system for potential closures by providing the public with information such as a school's age and the number of children attending from a particular area.
"But long before that (closure) happens, there's time for people to look at the alternatives," he said.
Nova Scotia School Boards Association president Jamie Stevens said he was pleased by changes that would see more community involvement in closure decisions.
He also said examining closures within related families of schools is something the association wants because the effects of closures are usually widespread.
"If you are going to close one of those schools involved, you have to take a look at how it will affect the schools that feed into that school and where those students go also," said Stevens.
A number of schools have closed in the province due to a declining student population and aging infrastructure.