Five N.L. schools closing in June
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.”
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.”
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.