PAUL BENNETT: Stop the consolidation train

A call for a moratorium on school closures, press the stop button and start anew

Published on February 11, 2017

FORMER P.E.I. LIBERAL CABINET MINISTER ALAN BUCHANAN

©FILE PHOTO

The clock is now ticking for four more rural communities on the Island. Since the adoption of the revised P.E.I. School Change policy in September 2016, school closures have continued under a new set of rather legalistic rules that formalize a process pitting the Public Schools Branch against the communities they purport to serve.

The current Wade MacLauchlan government is now, in effect, putting up to 56 school communities through the wringer.  A coalition to Save Island Schools has emerged and prominent Islanders like Alan Buchanan are now calling for a complete review of the grueling, divisive process and proposing constructive alternatives.

That is why I have been invited to speak on the Island in support of an immediate Moratorium on all School Reviews, giving the five school communities facing closures more time to develop viable, school-based alternatives to school consolidation.

Such a cessation for a minimum of one year will allow Minister Doug Currie and his Department to take the lead in developing a Schools at the Centre rural revitalization strategy, in collaboration with the Schools Branch and other provincial community development agencies. 

Since release of the September 2016 School Assessment Reports, the Schools Branch has narrowed its focus and is pursuing a facilities rationalization strategy driven almost entirely by school utilization rates without reference to the potentially devastating community impact of closures.

“Large, factory-like elementary schools” are not good for elementary students either, says retired educational leader Sterling Stratton, once a leading proponent of consolidation.

Top-down facilities planners seem to have seized the agenda and sidelined community-minded citizens, local employers, as well as parents seeking quality education for their children.  With school enrollments declining, particularly in rural areas, the School Review process has become a regulated, quasi-judicial “chopping block” on the road to a more consolidated, centralized, and remote school system.

Defenders of the School Review process contend that it does not always lead to closure, so it can be a vehicle for promoting school improvement.  If that is the real purpose, there are many better alternatives to throwing whole school communities into turmoil. Being granted a reprieve is all most small, rural schools can hope for under the current system.

Whether it is rural places like Georgetown, Belfast, Bloomfield, or St. Louis, or St. Jean in downtown Charlottetown, the arbitrary, speeded-up School Review process is proving to be a damaging one for schools, local economies, and school-community relations. It’s also threatening to rip the heart out of too many rural communities and to leave them with a bleak future. 

Prominent Islander Alan Buchanan has recently blown the whistle on the school consolidation express train. His recent column, “Community with a capital ‘C’,” urges the province to press the stop button and to start anew, building from the school and community-level up. In the case of Belfast, he demonstrates that the province would be far better advised to work with the District Community Council, building upon 45 years of community development experience. 

Provincial governments on the Island have the power to change the rules of the game for small schools and rural communities. After hosting two Georgetown Conferences on rural renewal, it’s incredible to think that the province would actually undermine local efforts to promote business development and repurpose emptying schools. 

 Simply stepping back and allowing the Schools Branch to conduct round after round of “school accommodation” reviews will have dire consequences for the state of public education, especially in rural Prince Edward Island.

Provincial education ministers have the authority to declare a Moratorium on the School Review process, an option exercised in April 2013 by then N.S. Education Minister Ramona Jennex. The pretext then was to secure sufficient time to assess the fairness of the former process and to consider the merits of a new alternative - community hub schools.    

Today, the situation on the Island is far more acute. The revamped School Review process has not improved the situation and continues to chew-up rural communities, abandoning groups of families willing to stand up and fight for local community access to public schools.

A Schools at the Centre community development strategy is desperately needed to stop the consolidation train in its tracks. It’s time for the Education Minister and his Department to take the lead in shifting the terms of engagement from “threatened closures” to community-based, school-centred, rural economic and social development.

The rural renewal spirit sparked by the Georgetown Conference movement needs to be recaptured. You can have viable small rural schools run on an economically efficient basis and tapping into the potential of local social innovation and digitally networked local schools.

Stopping the consolidation express train would allow the province the time to develop a comprehensive Rural Economic Development Strategy instead of simply closing schools and abandoning more rural communities.  

Transforming small schools into viable, lively community hubs and incubators for social enterprise is the way of the near future.  That’s also exactly what the Georgetown Conferences were all about.

 

- Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., Director of Schoolhouse Institute, is a co-founder of the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative (NSSSI). He and current NSSSI Chair Leif Helmer will be speaking in P.E.I. on February 15-16 on a tour with David Upton, co-founder of Common Good Solutions, a national leader in seeding and nurturing social enterprises.