Paradise council baffled by government’s unexpected high school switcheroo

By Mark Squibb/August 5, 2022

If you’ve been attentive to municipal politics in Paradise over the last decade, probably the most oft quoted fact you’ve heard is that Paradise is the province’s fastest growing municipality, and one of the fastest growing in all of Atlantic Canada.

The second most oft quoted is that Paradise needs a high school.

The issue was discussed round the council chambers with fervor this week, fueled by a CBC article that alleged Eastern School District CEO Tony Stack was surprised by the Furey government’s decision to fund construction of a new high school in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips, where the premier lives and has school-aged children.

Paradise boasts four elementary schools and a newly opened intermediate school, but no high school.

“Obviously, we are very pleased to see new elementary schools constructed in Paradise, and recently an intermediate school was opened as well,” said councillor Larry Voters. “This is great for our town given our continued growth. But over the weekend I read an article about the awarding of a new high school to a neighbouring municipality. Education Minister John Haggie said the decision came out of the infrastructure and budget discussions and that the facility will allow more than 300 students to avoid being bused to St. Johns. No doubt that’s a lot of kids. And I’m happy for them. But let me take a minute to compare that to the situation in Paradise. There are more than 1,500 students from Paradise attending high school outside the town, and a significant number of them are bused— certainly more than 300.”

Vaters said that, according to that same 2021 census data, there are over 4,500 in the 0-14 age range— children that will one day have to attend high school.

He noted Paradise boasts a population of 23,000, and the average resident’s age is 37.3 years— lower than in neighbouring municipalities, the province, and the country.

“I wonder if the minister is even aware of these facts?” asked Vaters. “Despite these facts, Paradise does not have a high school. And I have to question, is it even truly on the radar of government?”

Vaters said students in Paradise deserve to complete their K to 12 education in their own community.

“The facts and stats speak for themselves,” he argued. “Yes, our students have had great success and experiences in high schools in neighbouring municipalities. But wouldn’t it be great if they could attend high school in their own town? Maybe some of them would even have the opportunity to walk or bike to school. Wouldn’t that be great as well?”

Vaters said he had spoken with the three MHAs who serve the town, and then called upon them, and the two MPs who represent Paradise, to do their due diligence to advocate for a high school.

“Our town deserves it,” said Vaters. “Our kids deserve it even more.”

Other councillors agreed.

Councilor Patrick Martin noted there was no recommendation on the part of the school district to build a high school in Portugal Cove- St. Phillips, and that the recommendation from the school district was that the next high school be built in Paradise.

“But, our government went the opposite direction,” said Martin.

Councillor Glen Carew and Deputy Mayor Kimberley Street recalled that in the bygone days of the 1980’s, they themselves were bused to Mount Pearl for high school.

“We had wished, even back in the mid 80’s, that we had the ability to go to school in Paradise,” said Carew. “And the town has grown exponentially, and it’s time for government to recognise the fact that emerging populations deserve schools.”

Mayor Dan Bobbett made similar arguments in an interview following the meeting.

“We’re the fastest growing municipality in the province, if not Atlantic Canada, and we’re now the third largest, because in the last census data we surpassed Mount Pearl as the third largest municipality in the province,” said Bobbett, noting the push for a high school in Paradise goes back decades. “So, when you look at the census data, we’re puzzled as to why the province chose to put a high school in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips.”

Bobbett questioned why 300 high school students in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips seem to be given priority over 1,500 high school students in Paradise.

“We’re asking the question, is government considering population information at all?” said the mayor. “We have four elementary schools, and we just got an intermediate school, and we’re very pleased about that, but the plan should be to look at a high school as a next step for Paradise… So, our question is ‘Why?’ Why choose Portugal Cove- St.Phillips? To say, as Minister Haggie said, that the reason is that 300 students will avoid busing, well, we have about 1,500, and most all of those are bused, either to CBS or Mount Pearl. We just want to ask the question, are you using the data to support your decision?”

Bobbett said council is glad for the students in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips, but are confused as to the rationale, given the data.

He hinted that given the numbers don’t add up, the decision may have been political.

“That’s what we’re asking,” said Bobbett. “We’re asking, ‘Did you use the data to from the basis for your decision-making process?’ Because clearly, the data speaks volumes, the census data speaks volumes. We should have a high school. The data is there…. Please, give us a rationale for why you made this decision, because it’s clearly not based on the data.”

Bobbett said council will reach out to elected officials, and he encouraged residents to do the same.

“This is the message — we’re asking all residents to reach out to their elected officials, because this decision wasn’t based on the numbers, and we deserve a high school,” he added. “I’ll quote Larry Vaters: ‘We deserve it in Paradise, and our kids deserve it even more.’ So, we’re saying to residents, reach out to your elected officials, get on social media, and let your views be known. We here as a council, we’re advocating on your behalf… We’ve got four elementary schools that are bursting at the seams that are feeding into intermediate, and a high school should be the next step for Paradise. There should be a high school being considered to be built, right now.”

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