Five N.L. schools clos­ing in June

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - BY LOUIS POWER TC ME­DIA ED­U­CA­TION The Tele­gram

A de­ci­sion made this week­end to close five schools across New­found­land this June left many peo­ple out­raged — and at least one MHA ques­tion­ing whether the de­ci­sion-mak­ers had the au­thor­ity to vote on the mat­ter.

Dozens of peo­ple who op­pose the clo­sures showed up Satur­day to make their po­si­tions known as the New­found­land and Labrador English School District’s (NLESD) board of trus­tees voted by pa­per bal­lot. They lis­tened as one by one, each of the mo­tions to shut­ter the schools were passed for Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary, Holy Cross Ju­nior High in St. John’s, Sa­cred Heart All Grade in Conche, Long Is­land Academy in Beau­mont and Her­itage Academy in Green­spond.

Mil­ton Peach, chair of the NLESD, said the de­ci­sions were the re­sult of ex­ten­sive con­sul­ta­tion within the com­mu­ni­ties. Yet ac­cord­ing to slides shown be­fore the vote, only one of the dozens of com­ments re­ceived in the con­sul­ta­tion process was in favour of the pro­posed changes. Most of the com­ments raised con­cerns about what stu­dents be­ing trans­ferred to nearby schools would mean, in­clud­ing long bus rides, lack of ac­ces­si­bil­ity and the loss of pro­gram­ming and com­mu­nity spirit.

“Very sel­dom would you ever have any mass amount of peo­ple come out and say, ‘Please close our schools,’” Peach told me­dia af­ter the vote.

“We have to look at that in the big pic­ture, and we don’t re­ally to­day be in a po­si­tion, with al­lo­ca­tion of teach­ers, to be able to af­ford that kind of a sit­u­a­tion. ... Yes, we did lis­ten, but at the end of the day we had to look at what we had in front of us as well and make a de­ci­sion.”

Whit­bourne woes

Patti Kennedy, chair of the el­e­men­tary school coun­cil in Whit- bourne, said the de­ci­sions were not based on the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion but on fi­nances.

“(Fi­nance) Min­is­ter (Cathy) Ben­nett talked yes­ter­day about sharp­en­ing our pen­cils. She needs to sharpen her own pen­cil. Never mind our pen­cil — she needs to sharpen her own pen­cil and poke it in the bub­ble that’s hold­ing onto the min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause this is a trav­esty of jus­tice,” she said.

Stu­dents from Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary, which will close in June, will be­gin the next school year at Wood­land Academy in Dildo.

Kennedy said sev­eral of those stu­dents have ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues, and while the school board has com­mit­ted to some mea­sures to ac­com­mo­date them, she feels they don’t re­al­ize the scope of what will be nec­es­sary; she be­lieves it will cost more to move stu­dents to a school that has “ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues glar­ing you in the face”

than it would to keep them in Whit­bourne.

“The prin­ci­ples of in­clu­sion set out by the de­part­ment of ed­u­ca­tion have been vi­o­lated here to­day,” she said.

Peach said the district plans to make the Dildo school ac­ces­si­ble ei­ther way, and has met with the Coali­tion of Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties about mak­ing changes.

A fa­ther’s per­spec­tive

Kevin Power, whose son Jake Power re­cently be­came a stu­dent at Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary, said he was “baf­fled” at the de­ci­sion. He’s wor­ried about what it may mean for Jake, a Grade 5 stu­dent with autism.

“He’s go­ing through a lot of sen­sory is­sues, and since he’s been in Whit­bourne El­e­men­tary over the last month, be­cause we only moved out here, he’s been flour­ish­ing. He’s been do­ing re­ally good, and all his sen­sory needs are met,” he said.

“I’m af­ter hear­ing a lot of scary sto­ries — and it’s only hearsay, I guess — from the school that he might be go­ing to, that they want him to go to, that there’s a lack of sen­sory tools, and they’d have to set up pro­grams for him which is go­ing to cost more money for the tax­pay­ers.” On top of that, Power said his son would also need spe­cial trans­porta­tion, such as a taxi, which would be on the tax­pay­ers’ dime. Power and Kennedy are part of a group that’s de­ter­mined to find a way to keep that school open. But when asked about it, Peach said Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Dale Kirby’s po­si­tion that the NLESD has au­thor­ity in the mat­ter is clear. While Kirby was not ob­li­gated to be at the meet­ing, his ab­sence was noted.

“Where the hell is the mi­nis- ter of ed­u­ca­tion this morn­ing?,” Kennedy said fol­low­ing the votes. “His hands are tied. His tongue is tied.”

Kirby, whose Lib­eral party was in op­po­si­tion at the time, wrote a let­ter to The Tele­gram a year ago called “Bring on the school board elec­tions.” In it, he crit­i­cized the rul­ing Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives for not hold­ing elec­tions as promised for the NLESD’s board of trus­tees.

“In­stead, govern­ment’s ap­pointed trus­tees con­tinue to over­see all of the English-lan­guage schools in the prov­ince,” he wrote.

“Aside from mak­ing a farce of as­sur­ances that the lat­est school board con­sol­i­da­tion ex­er­cise would save money, govern­ment is mak­ing a mock­ery of one of the core foun­da­tions of demo­cratic school gov­er­nance.

“School board trus­tees wield sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sion-mak­ing power on mat­ters such as where stu­dents will at­tend school, which schools are pri­or­i­tized for sig­nif­i­cant ren­o­va­tions, and where com­mu­ni­ties stand on the list of those need­ing new schools. That’s why they need to be elected by and ac­count­able to the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties they serve.”

On that note, NDP MHA Gerry Rogers, who at­tended Satur­day’s meet­ing, said she doesn’t be­lieve the board had the au­thor­ity to make the de­ci­sion to close the five schools. She said while they were orig­i­nally elected in 2009, they have since been ap­pointed and are not a “duly elected, trans­par­ent, ac­count­able body.”

“There’s not a sin­gle mem­ber on the board of trus­tees that even lives in St. John’s. So they’re not ac­count­able to the com­mu­nity, and that’s the whole premise of hav­ing school board trus­tees,” Rogers said.

“And so now they’ve made de­ci­sions. The min­is­ter has said that he will call school board elec­tions this year, so th­ese de­ci­sions should have been post­poned un­til there’s a duly elected school board of trus­tees.

“And the cur­rent min­ster Kirby railed against this process when he was in op­po­si­tion. He railed against the process, the fact that we didn’t have a duly elected school board, and now he’s al­low­ing this to hap­pen. He has the au­thor­ity to in­ter­vene and say th­ese de­ci­sions have to be held back un­til we have a duly elected ac­count­able school board of trus­tees.”

LOUIS POWER/THE TELE­GRAM

Dozens of peo­ple against the clo­sure of schools showed up to the New­found­land and Labrador English School District’s board of trus­tees meet­ing Satur­day. At the meet­ing, the board voted to close five schools across the is­land.

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