Sod turning turns mayor’s stomach as Paradise continues to rally for new high school

By Mark Squibb / July 28, 2023

The calls for a new high school around the Paradise council chamber are akin to the main musical theme of your favorite film — the melody remains the same, whether played on a single instrument or by a full orchestra, and is oft-repeated throughout the film.

Last week, council’s cry for a new high school, and a demand for an explanation as to why government has opted to build a new high school in Portugal Cove – St. Phillips rather than Paradise, swelled to a passionate crescendo.

Deputy Mayor Kimberly Street spoke to the matter first, reiterating a number of points that have been made since news broke in 2022 that the province would be building a school in Portugal Cove-St. Phillips, and not Paradise.

She noted Paradise had for years been on the priority list, that roughly three times more students leave Paradise daily for school outside the town then leave Portugal Cove- St. Phillips, that the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) had not requested a new school be built in Portugal Cove – St. Phillips, that former school district CEO Tony Stack was apparently surprised by the decision, and that Paradise remains one of the provinces fastest growing municipalities with one of the youngest populations.

“The provincial government’s decision to not build a high school here in Paradise with all the stats and information that we have, I feel was not a good decision,” said Street.

Councillor Larry Vaters touched on many of the points Street had raised, and alluded to an Access to Information request the Town made last fall requesting the Province explain its decision.

The response, said Vaters, included speaking notes outlining the rationale for the new school. Reasons given included the number of students being bused to Prince of Wales Collegiate each day from Portugal Cove – St. Phillips (roughly 317), the fact that that town had lobbied for a new school for years, and that it is anticipating its first anticipated student increase in 50 years.

“We’re all pleased to see our neighbours get a new school,” said Vaters. “There’s no doubt about that. But I think it’s important to offer some comparisons to the reasons given for a new school in Portugal Cove – St. Phillips to the situation in Paradise.”

He noted that some 1,100 Paradise students are bused to either Holy Spirit High or Mount Pearl Senior High each day.

“So, if the province is using student populations and busing as a reason to build a new high school in Portugal Cove – St. Phillips, then the need to construct a new high school in Paradise should be very apparent, given that we have more than three times the number of Grade 10-12 students in Paradise than in Portugal Cove – St. Phillips,” said Vaters.

He further pointed out the school board had requested a new high school for Paradise back in 2014, deeming it a high priority even back then. A year later the board asked to meet with the Town to discuss the location of both a new intermediate school and high school, which had been given the green light by the provincial government. 

Vaters said the decision to construct a school was indefinitely deferred in Budget 2016 (that was the Liberal bad-news budget that was supposed to right the ship by means of tax increases and a levy to counter the debt and ballooning cost of government stacked up by the previous PC administration) but the school district, in 2017, still maintained that a high school in Paradise was its number one capital works priority.

“But more than six years later, we still have no high school here in Paradise,” said Vaters. “There has been sustained growth in Paradise for years, and current and projected enrollments justify a high school in Paradise. This is not just a pragmatic and reasonable decision — it’s the right thing to do.”

He said the decision to build a new school in Portugal Cove- St. Phillips leaves Paradise as the most populated town in the province without a high school.

“Think about that, we’ve got to think about that, guys,” said Vaters. “A town with a population exceeding 23,300, three times that of Portugal Cove – St. Phillips, and the third most populated place in the province, with no high school? It’s simply astonishing. Incredulous! It’s actually embarrassing, to be honest. It’s totally embarrassing.”

Vaters then read off a series of quotes attributed to Premier Andrew Furey, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure John Abbott and Minister of Education Krysta Lynn Howell from a provincial government press release issued on July 7 to coincide with the unveiling of the location of the new school in Portugal Cove-St Phillips.

“When is the provincial government going to employ that thinking to Paradise?” asked Vaters. “What’s the plan for a high school here? Or is there a plan? My message to the Premier, to the Minister of Education, to the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure is simply that we’ve waited long enough. The data supports a high school in Paradise, the time for action is now. Our town deserves it; our kids deserve it even more.”

Vaters’ delivery was met with approval from other members of council, none more so than Mayor Dan Bobbett.

“When the announcement came for the sod turning, I reached out to one of the ministers and said my stomach is turned as well,” said Bobbett. “There’s no reasoning here. None. And that’s why I reached out to each and every one of you guys to say that we need to write a message to the premier and ask for a meeting, because we need to sit down face-to-face and talk about it.”

Bobbett said all members of council were in agreement with that plan and noted staff are in the process of penning the letter.

To round out the discussion, councillor Glen Carew spoke as a long-time resident who himself was bused to Mount Pearl everyday while a student in the 1980s.

“Paradise was only in it’s growing phase then, and now we’re on bust,” said Carew. “We have hundreds of kids being bused daily. I feel that we as a council are trying very hard, like previous councils, to create a sense of community, and of course community is made up of residents. We can do what we need to do to help bring people together, but I feel that not having a high school in Paradise is a major detractor to us bringing our community together. It’s hard to centre our community having our students bused out of Paradise every day.”

Carew said he’s happy for the community of Portugal Cove-St. Phillips.

“I hope they don’t feel like this is sour grapes,” he said. “I’m ecstatic for them. They did some heavy lobbying and got themselves a high school. But in Paradise, we have asked, previous councils have asked, residents have asked, for a number of years… and it seems like asking is getting us no where. We need to demand it.”

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