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?
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.
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.