On January 21, a relatively small crowd gathered in the auditorium of Dartmouth High School to take part in one of the public consultation meetings that have been set up across the province to gather ideas from communities on how to improve the School Review Process here in Nova Scotia.
What the crowd lacked in numbers it made up in cross-section. There were parents, school board officials, educators, a student or two, a smattering of School Advisory Council members, and at least one school secretary. Sitting at the head table and hearing the commentary were Bob Fowler, the chair of the school review committee, Dr. Henry Bishop, local school representative, and facilitator Tony Stewart, who is the executive director of the Nova Scotia Educational Leadership Consortium. The perspectives that were brought forward throughout the evening were fairly representative of all the sides of this sometimes divisive and emotionally charged issue.
There was the urban perspective which spoke about the need to keep schools open in the downtown area, keeping in line with the Halifax Regional Municipality’s vision of greater population growth on the peninsula. When developing for the “densification” of Halifax, a key component to drawing families into the core is the presence of schools.
Then there was the rural perspective. The argument was made that rural schools are closing because no new people are moving into those communities, but no new people are moving into those communities because schools are closing. Schools were touted as the heart and soul of many rural towns and hamlets, and there was a general consensus that the “hub” model should be followed, which entails finding other “tenants” within the community to work out of the current buildings.
Finally, there was the perspective of the suburbanites, those folks caught somewhere in the middle, where school boundary decisions, often directly affected by school reviews, impacted local communities. There was a great deal of frustration aired around how such decisions were made, and a demand for greater effort by boards to disseminate information to stakeholders around such decisions.
There were, of course, many other perspectives presented. There was a parent who had been part of a community coalition which had developed an action plan to save their local school. There was the community member who complained about families sending their kids to out of area schools rather than supporting the local institution. And there was the school board member who spoke with the frustration at how much of what happened in the process was blamed on the local boards, when most of the decision-making was done at a provincial level. His most telling comment was something along the lines of “The Province gets to open schools, the School Board gets to close them.”
With so many perspectives and so many views, I am sure that just about everyone in the room took away something from the two-hour session. But if last night was indicative of what the town hall meetings have been like province wide, I do not envy Mr. Fowler his position.
The School Review Process Discussion Paper of November, 2013, has already recognized many of the concerns that were aired. Schools, it acknowledges, do have a vital role to play in the life of Nova Scotian communities, and there is a “social asset” component to schools that must be taken into consideration. But there are some hard truths to be faced. Of the approximately 400 schools in the province, more than half are over 30 years old. As a province, our schools’ space capacity exceeds need by at least 20 percent, which must be maintained at the taxpayers expense. As much as it is touted as a possible saviour of the rural school, the discussion paper concedes that there is yet to be a hub model that has “succeeded in turning a financially unviable school into a viable one”. Finally, there is the ever-present and all-encompassing issue of shrinking enrolment and demographic decline.
And a fun time was had by all…
Despite the seemingly desperate situation, there was some hope in the room, and there seemed, to me at least, to be a few key themes that emerged that might help the school review process improve.
There was a general sense that the various levels of bureaucracy needed to get better at communicating, both amongst themselves and with the public in general. This obviously simple but seemingly impossible task should certainly be an area of focus. In this day and age it seems that picking up a phone might be one of the easiest ways to improve this process for everyone.
The second theme that I saw emerge from the evening is that perhaps the school review process may need to be lengthened. I know that this does not help cashed strapped school boards, but there was a sense from community members that once a school is up for review, then the horse has left the barn, so to speak. Under the current model, school boards publicly identify which schools it wants to review for closure, then the issue becomes a fight to prevent that from happening. Perhaps letting communities know specific areas of concern in advance of a review might allow the community to rally their own resources and address the issues before a review becomes necessary.
The final theme that emerged was one that, well, left me feeling fairly buoyed. Despite all the doom and gloom of the evening, there was a repeated recognition that schools are more than bricks and mortar, and that closing a school should only come after every other option has been exhausted. This was not an overly sentimental emotionally charged declaration from some loud mouthed educational commentator (i.e., me) but rather a collective, intellectual, basic understanding that schools are vital to the health of our province.
As someone who has often written that one of our greatest resources here in Nova Scotia is our education system, I have a hard time accepting the closure of any school. At the same time, I am pragmatic enough to realize that keeping all our schools open in this province in this current economic climate will be challenging. But last night, I heard from a small group of concerned citizens who, to some extent at least, seem to share my views.
The true value in schools is not their economic capital, but rather their social capital. Any investment in them, no matter how painful, will return ten fold back to Nova Scotia and its communities.
It is my sincere hope that, when the consultation process is over, this is the message carried back to Province House on behalf of Nova Scotians.
Our schools are important. Let’s keep them that way.