School clo­sure process flawed, says Whit­bourne res­i­dent

The Compass - - OPINION -

Clos­ing a school is of­ten a ter­ri­ble process; high-pro­file, high-im­pact, emo­tional and in­creas­ingly com­mon through­out New­found­land and Labrador. In East­ern School District alone, three more schools are pro­posed for clo­sure in June of 2013: Whit­bourne Ele­men­tary, Catalina Ele­men­tary and Epiphany Ele­men­tary.

Th­ese school clo­sure pro­cesses are bit­terly con­tested and full of con­flict. The pro­cesses used by of­fi­cials are harshly crit­i­cized by school and com­mu­nity stake­hold­ers. I see ma­jor flaws with the school re­view process in our province; it does not con­sider all the roles that a school plays in a com­mu­nity. Pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion meth­ods are ex­tremely in­ad­e­quate, with lit­tle shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion and involvement with the stake­hold­ers. It does not have an in­te­grated ap­proach.

I see a tremen­dous need to un­der­stand the roles that schools play and the im­pacts of school clo­sure on a ru­ral com­mu­nity. Trustees may re­side in a larger city or town that is ur­ban­ized with a lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of the role a school plays in a town.

Of­ten, boards see schools as dis­pos­able build­ings used for the de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion. Boards use poli­cies and pro­ce­dures set out by leg­is­la­tion from the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to guide their de­ci­sions. De­ci­sions of­ten are more fo­cused on cost sav­ing mea­sures rather than any­thing else.

Mean­while, the stake­hold­ers in a com­mu­nity re­gard a school as the sym­bolic heart of their town; a meet­ing place for par­ents and chil­dren, a so­cial and recre­ational in­sti­tu­tion, and a place for com­mu­nity events. The im­pact of a school clo­sure has far reach­ing ef­fects into the very roots of a town and its res­i­dents.

Harm­ful to a town

The school lo­ca­tion is a sig­nif­i­cant con­tribut­ing fac­tor to the success of a small mu­nic­i­pal­ity. When ru­ral schools close, th­ese com­mu­ni­ties be­come less at­trac­tive to fam­i­lies that have school-age chil­dren and re­move a ma­jor fac­tor that has en­hanced the mar­ketabil­ity of a town.

From a pol­icy per­spec­tive, school clo­sure is a ma­jor con­cern for mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments whose plan­ning ob­jec­tives are un­der­mined when schools close. This has a di­rect im­pact on the tax base, which is very im­por­tant in terms of an­nual bud­gets. Bud­gets that fo­cus on im­prov­ing the in­fra­struc­ture of the com­mu­nity; an in­fra­struc­ture aimed at en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to choose it as a place to live.

The prac­tices of th­ese boards in New­found­land and Labrador are grossly in­ad­e­quate with lit­tle shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion and ra­tio­nale for school clo­sures with com­mu­nity stake­hold­ers; this is a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem.

The board will gather statis­tics, fi­nan­cial data, en­rol­ment pro­jec­tions and other data which are NOT shared with the stake­hold­ers. As a re­sult, the stake­hold­ers have ab­so­lutely no idea why their school is be­ing closed and are un­able to present vi­able so­lu­tions to an un­known prob­lem.

The process con­tin­ues with the board es­tab­lish­ing time­frames for one, maybe two, pub­lic meet­ings whereby in­di­vid­u­als can present in­for­ma­tion to them about their school or com­mu­nity. There are NO ques­tion and an­swer ses­sions. There is lit­tle feed­back given to stake­hold­ers.

Mem­bers of this board as­sure peo­ple all the in­for­ma­tion will be re­viewed as part of their de­ci­sion-mak­ing process. Mind you, this en­tire process is com­pleted in record time. Drum roll please … a de­ci­sion is made to close a school.

Many ques­tions go unan­swered; Has the school been a fi­nan­cial bur­den to the district? Are there prob­lems with stu­dent pro­gram­ming or en­rol­ment? Have all schools been re­viewed fairly and un­der the same cri­te­ria in this clo­sure process? Have other op­tions been con­sid­ered to use va­cant class­room space?

Lack­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion

In the Avalon re­gion, it ap­pears the East­ern School District board has lacked col­lab­o­ra­tion with stake­hold­ers in th­ese com­mu­ni­ties where school clo­sures have been an­nounced. Even worse, the board is not ob­li­gated to in­te­grate multi-year plan­ning ob­jec­tives or to con­sult with those of other mu­nic­i­pal and pro­vin­cial government de­part­ments.

What you get in the end is one government de­part­ment giv­ing with one hand to a ru­ral com­mu­nity while the other hand is tak­ing away ser­vices.

For ex­am­ple, in 2012 the Government of New­found­land and Labrador part­nered with the Town of Whit­bourne in a joint fund­ing ar­range­ment to spend $2.85 mil­lion in projects to en­hance our town. And then, in the same year, we have the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion — VIA East­ern School District board of trustees — rec­om­mend­ing to close Whit­bourne Ele­men­tary school.

Such de­ci­sions are done in­de­pen­dently with lit­tle, if any, dis­cus­sion among the stake­hold­ers. We need a more in­te­grated ap­proach to the spend­ing of our tax dol­lars and build­ing ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Is this not the man­date of the Ru­ral Sec­re­tariat for our province?

Mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments in New­found­land and Labrador can­not chal­lenge school board de­ci­sions be­cause th­ese bod­ies are gov­erned by dif­fer­ent pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion. Once a school board makes its de­ci­sion, the de­ci­sion is for­warded to the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion for im­ple­men­ta­tion. There is no ap­peal process.

By fol­low­ing th­ese pro­ce­dures, the sit­ting government and Mem­bers of the House of As­sem­bly can say they are NOT re­spon­si­ble for the de­ci­sion; no one gets their hands dirty or risks los­ing their seat in de­cid­ing to close a school. This fact may limit the involvement of other government de­part­ments to have any sort of in­te­grated ap­proach to a ru­ral town.

Pub­lic pres­sure

What is more un­fair for th­ese schools is the role of pub­lic pres­sure and me­dia involvement. It seems that if one school gets more me­dia at­ten­tion or there is more pub­lic out­cry then de­ci­sions can be re­versed for that school. Just look at what hap­pened in Swift Cur­rent when the is­sue of trans­port­ing young chil­dren over the Trans-Canada High­way for sev­eral hours got me­dia at­ten­tion. I bet Black­Ber­rys were go­ing off in Con­fed­er­a­tion Build­ing and through­out East­ern School District on that is­sue.

I was de­lighted to see a par­tial change in the board’s de­ci­sion for the school in Swift Cur­rent, but the fact of chil­dren be­ing trans­ported long dis­tances still ex­ists. It is time for the pro­vin­cial Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive government to start paying less at­ten­tion to Muskrat Falls and more at­ten­tion to the other is­sues (e.g. ed­u­ca­tion and health care) that are di­rectly im­pact­ing the peo­ple of our province.

New­found­land and Labrador is in need of a new school plan­ning process. A process that is fair, con­sults with stake­hold­ers, is trans­par­ent and that sup­ports pro­vin­cial poli­cies for healthy, sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ties. A process that has an in­te­grated and in­no­va­tive ap­proach to ad­dress­ing the is­sue of an over­ca­pac­ity of class­room space.

An­thony Young writes from Whit­bourne

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