The math is hard

October 22, 2010 9:52 AM

The sudden and near-simultaneous shutdown of two large New Brunswick schools (for very different physical issues) has, so far, not devolved into too much of a partisan political fight. But it does bring into sharp focus the reality of demographic change in the province.

In Moncton, there's considerable consternation as district officials scramble to get Moncton High School students into classrooms elsewhere in the city. It's creating a domino effect in other schools, some of which are bursting at the seams. There's very little wiggle room in one of the province's fastest-growing communities. Parents are irritated.

In Campbellton, the story is considerably different: today's front-page headline in L'Acadie Nouvelle describes the relocation of students from Polyvalente Roland-Pépin as a "harmonious" move. Left unsaid is that this is merely a bit of silver lining around the dark cloud of population decline in the north.

The 340 students from Roland-Pépin are moving to Ecole Aux Quatre Vents in Dalhousie, which has a population of 290 students this year. That more that doubles the school's population to 630, a seemingly overwhelming increase in terms of physical space.

But the Dalhousie school was designed for a population of 700 when it was built in 1983. Outmigration from the north, particularly among young families with school-aged children, has cut the number of students by more than half. That means there is plenty of room in one school for the current population of two schools, with a bit of space to spare.

If you think taxpayers don't notice the math, think again. Given the province's massive deficit, it didn't take long for one caller to a CBC Talkback line this morning to suggest writing off the Campbellton school and using some of the money to instead upgrade Aux Quatre Vents for the new influx of students, which could be made permanent. "That would save a whole lot of hassle," said the caller, "but that all depends on the local area."

Indeed: it would be politically lethal for the Alward government to shut down a large school in the largest community in the Restigouche area. There are plenty of arguments against permanent closure: a school is a valuable community resource in ways that can't be measured on a balance sheet.

But the province's fiscal challenges will force the Tories to at least think about the unthinkable. These two school shutdowns have drawn a stark contrast between the relatively prosperous south and the declining north. A hard look at the student population statistics reveals a painful, uncomfortable truth: on numbers alone, one area needs more schools and the other has more than it needs.
- Jacques Poitras

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