Sunday, October 17, 2021

School enrolment up in St. Mary’s

Reversal of 10-year slide, CAO points to positive economic trend

  • September 15 2021
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

ST. MARY’S – The new chief administrative officer of the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s is calling a dramatic one-year increase in local school enrollment “a fantastic signal” of a trend that’s already making the area “an incredibly attractive place” to live and work.

Statistics provided to The Journal by the Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE) last week showed 232 students enrolled or expected at St. Mary’s Education Centre/Academy (SMECA) this year, compared with 218 in 2020.

That represents a one-year increase of seven per cent, effectively ending a 10-year downward spiral that has seen enrollment drop annually since 2011’s high water mark of 318.

In an email, David Hutten stated: “This increase is certainly a positive trend, and one that I don’t anticipate will be changing as we continue our slow and steady move toward post-pandemic living. COVID has … helped us realize the capacity we have to do much of our work from remote areas, rural locations.”

Hutten – who recently moved from New Brunswick to assume the municipality’s top management position from the retiring Marvin MacDonald, and who has two children of his own – added: “I believe the availability to work remotely makes the municipality an incredibly attractive place for families with school-aged children.”

In an email, SRCE Communications Coordinator Deanna Gillis confirmed that the increased enrollment at SMECA is across all grade levels (Primary to 12).

“Each year, it’s common for the number of students enrolled at our schools to change for a variety of reasons, including a different number of outgoing graduating students and incoming Primary [ones],” she said, adding: “Families also move school regions, may enroll their child during the school year or may choose to home school their child. We do not track families’ personal reasons for registering at a specific school.”

But Hutten said he believes the enrollment uptick indicates a more durable trend has begun.

“Pre-pandemic LinkedIn and some other sources and media publications were predicting that by 2022 there would be a significant amount of the workforce that would be working from home, virtually, or at the very least working minimally from an actual brick and mortar worksite or location,” he said.

“Some of these studies suggested as high as 50 per cent of the entire workforce would potentially be working from home, or locations of their choosing. With the Internet for Nova Scotia initiative well underway – and the increased availability for solid Internet connections in the District of St. Mary’s, [where] affordable living is within close proximity to oceans, lakes, rivers and all the active transportation growth that is available and developing – the region is certainly set to attract many new residents.”

As The Journal recently reported, the number of real estate sales and value of building permits are on the upswing in St. Mary, a momentum that began shortly after the first lockdowns of the pandemic in early 2020.

The most recent figures from the municipality’s finance department show deed transfer tax revenues were $64,088 during the first quarter of the fiscal year, ending June 30, 2021, compared with $14,161 during the comparable period in 2019-20. The municipality also posted 17 building permits with an assessed value of $1.6 million during the quarter, compared with 10 worth $718,000 in the same period two years ago.

“Affordable living, which is a key issue across our country, is a contributor to the amount of people coming from central and western Canada to relocate east, where they can find homes, properties and living arrangements that suit their family needs in a more affordable fashion,” Hutten said.

“The challenge that council and staff are excited to work on is the creation of housing … to work progressively toward increasing opportunity for many residents to find their home, and enjoy their life here … and knowing that school enrollment is increasing is a fantastic signal that the trend is starting.”

The municipality is putting finishing touches on an extensive planning strategy and land-use bylaw, the first in 15 years, designed to implement a more focused approach to economic development for the district, which could include a new chamber of commerce. A final draft of the plan is expected to be sent to council shortly.

Said Hutten: “It is an exciting time, and we will continue to work to meet demand any way possible for the benefit of the municipality, and ultimately the communities throughout.”