Why a moratorium on closures

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March 4, 2008 by realrenewal

Motion by Dr. J. F. Conway, 4 March 2008

RESOLVED that the Regina Public School Board respond positively to the wish expressed by Education Minister Ken Krawetz and Premier Brad Wall that school closure decisions be postponed pending changes to the school consultation section of the Education Act, and pending the establishment of the criteria for “schools of necessity” and “schools of opportunity,” and accordingly defer all school closure and program consolidation decisions pending this year from the 10 year plan to the 2008-2009 school year.

Argument

Both Premier Brad Wall and Minister of Education Ken Krawetz have made widely circulated and prominently reported appeals to all school boards in the province currently contemplating school closures to postpone such decisions.  This appeal was based on the government’s intention to make legislative and funding changes which will potentially have a significant impact on school closure decisions.

The Minister referred to legislative changes which presumably could well involve changes in the Education Act to the requirements for consultation in contemplation of a school closure.  Currently the requirements are fairly minimal [see sections 87(1)(x), 87(2), and 87(3)], requiring a process involving the citing of a school for possible closure prior to November 30 of the school year at the end of which closure is to occur.  After a school is cited for possible closure there are minimal requirements for public consultation, with the final decision to be made by March 15 of that school year.

The Facility Requirements and School Closure policy of Regina Public Schools reflects that timeline, establishes criteria for the facility review, and provides for public consultations prior to the end of February.  However, the role of the public in general, and the school communities in particular, is largely restricted to responding to a plan prepared by the Administration under the oversight of the elected Board.  The final decision, and the recommendations leading to that final decision, remain in the hands of the Administration and the Board.

Should these legislative changes in the school closure process require a much more elaborate process than the one now in place in the policy of Regina Public Schools, then all subsequent proposed closures noted in the 10 year plan – 11 in all – would have to be carried out under the new and perhaps more rigorous procedures.  This would mean that the three schools cited now – Herchmer, Stewart Russell, and Usher – would have been treated differently and, arguably, unfairly.  Should these changes go as far as those proposed in Ontario, requiring a complex school valuation process overseen, not by the Administration as is now the case, but by representatives of the community, with much more rigorous requirements of notice of possible closure and public consultation, and including the right to an independent appeal of a closure decision, then these schools will have suffered a serious disadvantage should a closure decision be made on March 11.

The Minister also requested postponement of closure decisions pending the establishment of the criteria for “schools of necessity” and “schools of opportunity.”  There is no doubt that every school community facing closure can, and indeed has, made strong arguments to save their schools since they are, for that community, “schools of necessity” and/or “schools of opportunity.”  Personally, I can make arguments, and will on March 11, that all three of the cited schools are clearly “schools of necessity” and “schools of opportunity,” each for often very different reasons.   But we have never had clear public criteria established as to what constitutes a “school of necessity” or a “school of opportunity,” thus enabling school communities to make their cases based on the clear criteria of these two dimensions, and, perhaps more importantly, to impose on School Boards the discipline of having to demonstrate unambiguously why closure is appropriate since the cited schools fail to meet these clear and public criteria.

What if the Board proceeds to close some or all of the three cited schools, and then later we discover that some or all of them meet the established criteria for a “school of necessity” and/or a “school of opportunity?”  This would be grossly unfair to the school or schools, and a major public embarrassment for this Board.  Just off the top of my head I can easily see how both Herchmer and Stewart Russell might very well meet criteria in both categories, given their large aboriginal student enrollment – schools of necessity because of the extreme socio-economic disadvantages which burden many if not most aboriginal students and the notoriously low rate of academic success among aboriginal students delivered by current educational practices; schools of opportunity because the aboriginal population in Regina is growing rapidly, through both natural increase and in-migration, and aboriginal families will be attracted to such schools for a whole variety of reasons.  I could well envisage possible criteria which would instruct us to shelter and nurture such schools, rather than close them.

But the point is we don’t yet know the changes the new government intends to make to the Education Act, nor do we yet know the criteria for “schools of necessity” and “schools of opportunity.”  Yet we do know that such decisions will be made by the government in the very near future.  These changes and decisions by the senior level of government may well pose enormous challenges to the existing 10 year renewal plan’s 14 school closure proposals, perhaps requiring significant amendments, at the very least, in the consultation process and school closure criteria.

It is only fair that all schools cited for possible closure in the plan are assessed in exactly the same way, with exactly the same ground rules, and with the application of exactly the same criteria.  For that reason, this Board should, in all conscience, defer all school closure and program consolidation decisions to be made on March 11 to next year.  If the Board does not, the school communities negatively affected by any school closure or program consolidation decisions that may be made on March 11 will have been treated quite differently from the others, since all subsequent such decisions which will have to occur in the context of pending legislative changes and the government’s established criteria for “schools of necessity” and “schools of opportunity.”

It is respectfully submitted that this would be manifestly unfair.

 

The rural argument

I had anticipated that some of my colleagues on the Board might well argue that both Premier Wall and Education Minister Krawetz were directing their appeals for the postponement of school closure decisions to rural school divisions.  While it is true that two school divisions – Chinook (based in Swift Current) and Good Spirit (based in Yorkton) – have agreed to postpone pending closure decisions on two rural schools in each division, nothing in the remarks of either the Premier or the Minister referred specifically and uniquely to rural schools or rural school divisions.  Indeed, the Minister made a point of addressing his appeal to all school boards in the province.  There was no exemption of urban school divisions from this appeal.

The legislative changes pending, and the criteria for “schools of necessity” and “school of opportunity,” will apply to all schools in the province, not just to rural schools.  Doubtless the fact of being a rural or northern school might well appear on the list of criteria of “schools of necessity.”  But so too might schools serving communities suffering from extreme socio-economic disadvantage, or serving communities with a large aboriginal population.

To suggest that Regina Public Schools should proceed with the possible closures despite the appeals because we are an urban school division is to argue that urban school communities should not be able to benefit from the pending decisions, while rural school communities should be able to do so.  This is an untenable position.

The families of the children of rural divisions where decisions have been postponed are much fewer in absolute numbers than the families of the three cited schools in Regina – the decisions in Regina will affect an estimated 500 to 800 families.  These urban students, their families, and their school communities should have the same right to benefit from the pending changes as their rural counterparts, should there be any.

Certainly urban and rural school divisions face different problems and challenges, but both urban and rural school communities should enjoy similar treatment under the law and the regulations.

The fact is, at this point, we do not know how the proposed legislative changes and the criteria might or might not be more or less relevant to an urban or a rural school division.  That remains to be seen.

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