West End school closure sparks anger
Plans to close West End Primary School in Sandys came under heavy fire last night at a heated town hall meeting in Somerset Cricket Club.
The gathering also delivered an uncommon rebuke to the Progressive Labour Party government, from the party’s own supporters and in a PLP stronghold.
Phil Perinchief, a former PLP Attorney-General, said plans to shut the school, announced on Thursday, exemplified a “worrying trend” of “relentless determination by this current administration to erase Black people’s hard fought-for legacy”.
“I find such a trend offensive in the extreme – for me, even criminal,” he added, telling a small but vocal crowd of 80 they had “a duty to put it right”.
Mr Perinchief described meeting with David Burt, the Premier, and education minister Diallo Rabain last week to present a petition with 325 signatures and a list of questions aimed at the decision.
He accused Mr Rabain of “playing politics with the educational destiny of this community”.
Mr Perinchief added there had been no formal response from Mr Burt or the minister ahead of the announcement including West End Primary among eight primary schools slated for closure.
Founded in 1869, West End Primary admitted Black and Portuguese students when Sandys Grammar School, now Somerset Primary, excluded them.
Mr Perinchief said keeping Somerset Primary as the preferred school while West End Primary got axed was “an infernal monster looming on your doorsteps”.
Diane Hunt, a historian of the school, said highlighting its legacy felt “futile” when “nobody important making the decisions is listening”.
She said the school had traditionally got “leftovers” from more respected schools, adding: “Now they think we are still leftovers. But the next election will tell.”
She added: “I hope the rest of Bermuda will be in our footsteps as we fight this decision.”
Ellen-Kate Horton, a PLP stalwart facing censure from the party for her opposition to the move, told The Royal Gazette she was still “under charges” but that her anger was more at the decision than the party.
But she told the meeting she was taken aback at the move in a constituency that supported the PLP for decades.
“If it was any other Government, all of us here and elsewhere would be marching,” she said. “We’ve done that before – marched on the other Government.”
Marcus Jones, the Opposition leader in the Senate and a school alumnus, agreed, saying if it had been a One Bermuda Alliance decision, “we know full well that all of Somerset would be up in arms in protest – let’s just be honest”.
Saying the issue “goes beyond politics”, Mr Jones called it a chance for him to join with PLP MP Crystal Caesar, another graduate attending the meeting, and “put down our differences and stand shoulder to shoulder to fight for this school”.
Cecille Snaith-Simmons, mother of PLP MP for Sandys South Jamahl Simmons, read a letter from her son, who was unable to attend because of quarantine.
Ms Snaith-Simmons, a staunch defender of the school, told the crowd: “You wonder why we are mad? I am damn mad.”
Mr Simmons’ letter said he was “deeply saddened and hurt by the decision to close this iconic Sandys, Black institute of learning”, calling it “history thrown away with the stroke of a pen”.
Mr Simmons wrote that his loyalty lay with the PLP, but his conscience stood with the community and preserving the school.
“Together we can stand for our history, our culture and community and say as one voice, not here, not today, not ever.”
An emotional Jennifer Manders, whose mother Margaret Manders was once principal, told the meeting: “This is ridiculous, to destroy 152 years of history of our people, just like that. It’s ridiculous.
“I hope we get a lot more momentum for this protest.”
She said moving West End Primary students to Somerset Primary amounted to opening old wounds.
“You can’t put our children in that situation,” she said. “Yes, we want to move on and heal. But you won’t heal a person by re-traumatising them.”
Ms Manders said it was an opportunity for the Government to make “reparations for the past” by uplifting West End Primary instead of closing it.
Saying she felt “ignored”, Ms Manders added: “We can’t figure it out.
“And we certainly can’t figure it out from this Government. The West End for generations put people from the PLP in place, and we put you in place this time with joy.”
Along with Ms Caesar, the meeting was attended by Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General and Sandys North MP, and government MP Ianthia Simmons-Wade, the widow of former PLP leader Frederick Wade.
Ms Manders vowed the group was “here for the long haul” to defend the school.
She said another meeting on their next move would come “very soon after Cup Match”.