ALAN BUCHANAN: Community, with a capital ‘C’

Belfast area displays leadership, far-sightedness for more than 45 years

Published on January 30, 2017

Exterior photograph of Belfast Consolidated School

©File Photo

It seems unlikely, but here I am, once again at odds with a Liberal government. This time, the issue is the closing of schools. More specifically, I’m concerned about the closure of the Belfast school and the message that such an initiative sends to similar communities.

When I say similar communities, I don’t use the term loosely. Belfast is not a small cluster of houses, stubbornly clinging to an antiquated model and notion of place. It is a community with a capital 'C,' established under the Municipalities Act and governed by an elected Community Council.  It is a regional community, consisting of 1,637 residents representing some 20-odd former single-room school districts, which amalgamated in 1972.

The boundaries of the community are virtually identical to those of the school catchment area. In short, Belfast has 45 years of experience doing precisely what the government is desperate to have other communities do: amalgamate, consolidate, and take greater responsibility for the governing of its own affairs and the shaping of its own economic future.

And how is the community rewarded for its leadership and far-sightedness? By having its school closed. Adding further insult is the fact that neither of the schools to which the Belfast students are being transferred is within an incorporated community.

 This latter fact is particularly puzzling. It is a well-known practice within public administration to use public investment as an enticement to achieve certain policy objectives. For example, many jurisdictions will only construct social housing or government buildings in incorporated communities. Such a requirement has the benefit of encouraging municipal amalgamation and providing additional protection to taxpayers. Under such rules the message is clear: If a community wishes to benefit from public investment, it must demonstrate responsibility in planning and managing its own affairs.

The MacLauchlan government is also sending a clear message with its proposal to close schools. To communities like Belfast, which decades ago took the initiative to amalgamate, the message is summed up in two succinct words: Thanks, suckers!

I’m confident this is not the message the Premier wishes to send. But it is clearly the message that his educational bureaucrats have delivered.

We can almost imagine how it unfolded. Officials within the Department of Education looked at a map and quickly recognized that Belfast is conveniently located between two other underutilized schools. Imagine the ”eureka” moment:  “Let’s just take some from the bottom of the Belfast district and move them to Southern Kings, and take some from the top and move them to Vernon River”.

Problem solved.

This, of course ignores all kinds of other factors, including the presence of a supportive community and active Community Council and Development Corporation, an excellent and cost-efficient building, and superior educational outcomes to name only a few. It also ignores the fact (contained within the Department’s own projections) that at least one of the schools to which Belfast students will be bussed will be at-or-above capacity within five years. What will happen then? Any of the marginal savings gained from closing one school will be wiped out if an addition has to be built to another.

But that’s of no concern to the educational bureaucrats. Constructing or expanding schools is a capital cost. That’s someone else’s budget. And as for building community capacity, accountability and economic vibrancy? That’s someone else’s budget and worry too.

Even if the educational bureaucrats aren’t concerned about communities, the Premier should be. Given his background and commitment to rural development, he won’t want to move ahead with an approach that eviscerates community. I feel certain our Premier will insist on exploring other, less disruptive models. Certainly the “hub” model, which would make the school the location for other public services, has all the promise of a practical alternative. But exploring other models takes time, and that isn’t something the educational bureaucrats wish to share. Their minds are made up, and they want to get on with the job. They want to make the necessary staffing changes before the April deadline required by union contracts. Understandably, they are looking through the single lens of budgetary efficiency.

But I’m hoping that the Premier will look through a kaleidoscopic lens. I’m hoping he will look through the lens of community development. I’m hoping he will be open to exploring other models that will keep schools like Belfast open, by making them instruments of community growth and development. I’m hoping he will recognize it’s not right to punish communities who have taken responsibility for their own governance, planning and economic development. I’m hoping he will realize that the efforts of his educational advisors are at cross-purposes to his own efforts and aspirations for communities.

Most importantly, I’m hoping he will wisely recognize that the time allotted for review and feedback is not adequate for an issue of this importance and consequence. 

 

 

- Alan Buchanan is a former Liberal MLA, Belfast-Pownal Bay