Two Canadian provinces, New Brunswick and Ontario, are on the front lines in the ongoing battle over school closures, mostly concentrated in small rural communities. With school consolidation on pause in Nova Scotia the wake of the 2013 School Closure Moratorium, it has returned with a vengeance in both N.B. and Ontario. The renewed threat in New Brunswick has now sparked a feisty province-wide Rural Schools Coalition.
A dozen small New Brunswick communities are currently in a state of upheaval with local schools facing possible closure, sparking growing popular resistance from Dorchester to Pennfield and north to Dalhousie, affecting Anglophone and Acadian communities alike. In Ontario, Education Minister Liz Sandals has not only identified some 600 schools as “half full” and ripe for review, but now introduced legislative changes to “speed-up” that province’s “School Accommodation Review” process.
Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), the Education Department is imposing an arbitrary, cost-driven “school sustainability” process upon supporters of the threatened schools. It looks, sounds, and feels distinctly like a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their rural communities. After blowing through the first dozen, forty-two more schools, 27 anglophone and 15 francophone, are next in line.
Ontario’s new School Review process, unveiled in late March 2015, reflects the so-called “speed-up” agenda. Faced with a deficit reduction challenge, Minister Sandals has enacted changes shortening the timelines from seven months to five, cutting the number of public consultation meeting from 4 to 2, and limiting the criteria to “impact on student achievement.” Eliminating the criterion “value to the community” has upset municipal mayors and re-ignited the Community School Alliance, led by London-Middlesex small school advocate, Doug Reycraft.
Hundreds of Save Our School Signs have appeared all over rural N.B. and the whole exercise threatens to kill the “community spirit” that still animates much of rural New Brunswick. In the case of two Anglophone East School District communities, Dorchester and Riverside-Albert, local public school supporters were given less than two months to a react to weighty facilities cost reports and documents stacking the deck in favour of closure.
The New Brunswick School Closure process is not only top-down and draconian, but also completely at odds with best policy and practice elsewhere. Compared with School Review for closure rules in Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, the current practice violates every principle of fairness, legitimacy, and civic engagement.
“Procedural fairness” is so narrowly circumscribed under N.B. Policy 409 that it amounts to little more than a commitment to carry out prescribed, pre-scheduled public hearings designed simply to validate the closure recommendation. It’s top-down decision making in the extreme, driven entirely by the provincial government’s cost reduction targets and based upon the unproven assumption that moving students to bigger schools is more cost-effective.
Estimated cost savings accruing from closure, in the case of both the Dorchester and Riverside schools, running to $1.8 million, are grossly inflated, based upon projected staff reductions and compounded costs accumulated after years of deferred maintenance. Additional busing costs, at $50,000 per vehicle annually, are not acknowledged and community school cost reduction plans are simply not being considered.
Schools listed for closure are excluded completely from the information gathering process and presented with “infrastructure planning” reports that put facilities ahead of students, parents and communities. Under the policy, closure proceedings can be sprung on schools at any time, with insufficient time to formulate a response let alone generate viable, community-based alternatives.
The standard model of School Accommodation Reviews, utilized in Ontario gives school communities ample time (5 to 7 months), builds-in more school-level engagement, and provides for a provincial mediator. It’s far from perfect, but respects the right of aggrieved communities to proper representation and legitimate opportunities to be heard before school boards make their final decision. No school would ever be closed on the tight timeline currently being implemented in N.B.
Just across the border, in Nova Scotia, the whole School Review process is radically different and aimed at achieving cost efficiencies through a brand new school-centred community planning model, supporting the gradual re-purposing of school buildings. Schools are viewed as community assets and not simply liabilities to be abandoned and off-loaded to local towns and villages.
Under the newly established October 2014 N.S. model, school boards are required to engage municipalities, school communities, local groups and business organizations in a Long Range Planning process. Schools with declining enrollments are encouraged to develop Community Hub plans aimed at re-purposing surplus school space and generating revenue to assist in ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Once the initial spadework has been done, the School Review process goes forward guided by a “School Options Committee” mandated to find local solutions. Only when such efforts flounder, do the schools close.
New Brunswick’s School Closure policy was already grossly unfair, and Education Minister Serge Rousselle has just made it even worse. His latest revisions, announced in mid-stream, adding two “triggers” for closure – under 100 students or 30 per cent or less occupancy — merely confirm the suspicions of rural New Brunswickers. Appropriating the concept of a “trigger” mechanism, borrowed from the world of firearms, may have been a Freudian slip. If Express Train 409 does not run you over, then the DECs can pull the trigger to kill the vitality and resilience of rural communities, leaving them school-less and eventually childless.
New Brunswick can do much better — and Ontario should know better than to deny the critical role schools play in smaller communities. It’s time to re-think the current move to “Hurry Up” school closure process, to take stock of what happened in Nova Scotia, and to build local communities into a more school-centred rural revitalization process.
What’s “fair” about imposing School Consolidation and springing closures on struggling rural communities? What’s driving the “speed-up” in provincial School Review process time-frames for closure? Where’s the hard evidence to support the purported cost savings and operational efficiencies? An how can such bitter, divisive and arbitrary public processes be transformed into community-building, cost-efficiency-generating exercises?