01/11/2017 17:04 EST | Updated 01/12/2018 00:12 EST

Liberal MLA vows to fight school closure in his district

A Liberal MLA whose constituents are affected by one of the proposed school closures on P.E.I. says he will fight to keep St. Louis Elementary open.

"I'm not convinced that closing St. Louis will have better outcomes for students, and until that time I'm going to stand behind the people of the area and do what I can to support their needs," said Hal Perry, whose District 27 provides about 70 per cent of the students who attend the school, which is in District 26.

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On Tuesday, the P.E.I. Public Schools Branch released its draft recommendations on how to address underutilized or overcrowded schools in the province. It recommended closing five of them, including St. Louis Elementary, Georgetown Elementary, Belfast Consolidated, St. Jean Elementary and Bloomfield Elementary. If all the recommendations are implemented, they will affect 57 teachers and staff and about 2,500 students. 

Perry, who crossed the floor from the Progressive Conservatives to the Liberals in 2013, said closing St. Louis Elementary would be devastating to the community. 

"It's a very close community, and the school is actually the hub for that centre," he said. "The school has a lot of tradition, a lot of history, and they offer a lot that maybe some other schools don't offer on Prince Edward Island."

60-day consultation

There will now be another round of consultations, lasting 60 days.

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"These are only recommendations," Perry said. "But we have to do what we can, and I will help my constituents advocate to keep that school open for the community and surrounding area."

He said he's already reached out to the Home and School Association, and will meet with community members to find the "best way to attack this."

Recommendations are balanced, Currie says

Education Minister Doug Currie said he understands that school closures create a lot of emotion, but that he's supportive of the process because of the challenges facing P.E.I. schools.

He said the recommendations will get ​overcrowded schools back to optimal levels, and underused schools closer to optimal, all while helping class composition and expanding extracurricular activities.

"The intent here is to really to find parity and to improve the overall quality and balance in public education across the province," he said.

'It pulls at the heartstrings': Opposition MLA

At least two Opposition politicians with schools recommended to be closed in their districts aren't buying it. They say removing schools will kill the communities they sit in.

Belfast-Murray River MLA Darlene Compton, whose district includes Belfast Consolidated, said she had hoped the process would end in reallocation and rezoning only.

"It pulls at the heartstrings, because I went to that school starting in Grade 3 and my father helped build it, and there are going to be kids that are separated from their friends," she said. "But putting all that aside it's not just about those emotions. It's about a rural community and how important a school is to that rural community."

She said people are attracted to the area because they see it as a great place to raise children — something she says will stop if the school shuts down.

"We have a lot of young children who are coming up through the system right now. And the numbers will be slightly increasing if they would keep the school open, and that's what we're going to push for."

'Throw out the results'

Both Compton and Stephen Myers, the Opposition's education critic and the MLA for Georgetown-St. Peters, said they were surprised closures were recommended.

Georgetown Elementary is operating at well under half-capacity, but Myers said there are solutions other than closure, including changing the area students are drawn from, or changing where French immersion is available.

"To simply walk away from it is disappointing," he said.

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Currie countered that the recommendations include expanding enrolment in nearby Cardigan, which is a ten-minute drive from Georgetown.

As for complaints that the report calls for the closure of four rural schools and only one urban school (St. Jean is in Charlottetown), Currie said that of approximately 21,000 students in the province, the recommendations would affect 2,500 of them, with 1,800 of those in the Charlottetown Rural and Colonel Gray zones.

St. Jean has infrastructure issues

Jordan Brown, MLA for Charlottetown-Brighton, was not as upset as his counterparts about the prospect of a school closing in his district.

He said St. Jean is at low capacity, has problems with its roof and furnace and is unique in that the building has other tenants, including a day care.

"That said, you never like to lose a school. It has an impact certainly on a community," he said. "I'll certainly be following up to make sure all of those things have been balanced out."

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