New Brunswick

School closure policy unlikely to change, Serge Rousselle suggests

A new coalition of rural school supporters is calling on the provincial government to suspend its school closure policy, but Education Minister Serge Rousselle suggests policy 409 already includes the criteria the group is recommending and is unlikely to change.

New coalition of rural school supporters wants policy 409 suspended

After meeting with a coalition of parents and rural-school supporters, Education Minister Serge Rousselle is suggesting he'll stick with the government's existing policy on school closures.

Education Minister Serge Rousselle met Tuesday with a new coalition that represents parents and supporters from 12 schools across the province. (CBC)
The group, called the Rural Schools Coalition, launched itself Tuesday with a news conference in Fredericton, where its leaders demanded the Liberal government suspend policy 409.

"We as a government believe that we have a policy there and we have to respect the law," Rousselle told reporters later in the day, "and right now, the law is policy 409, which we have to respect."

The policy lays out the year-long consultation and study process that district education councils must follow to close a school. But Marie-Claude Michaud, who's been lobbying to save Pennfield Elementary School, says it's tilted in favour of closure.

Parents have been told by district officials that closing a school is the easiest way for the district to save money, she said.

"This is not responsible management of our children, communities, education system or finances," she said. "As we all know, the easiest choices are not always the right ones."

Paul Bennett, an education consultant and professor from Halifax, says the process now underway is "a travesty."

Three schools, in Lorne, Pennfield, and Coles Island, are already scheduled to close before September, while several others are being studied.

The provincial government also recently introduced new criteria for districts, stipulating that they must launch a study for any school with fewer than 100 students or that is at 30 per cent or less of its student capacity.

This policy was put into place to take into consideration the different options, and the different points of view.- Serge Rousselle, education minister

That change means an additional 42 schools will be studied for possible closure before September 2016.

Bennett says New Brunswick should adopt a process similar to Nova Scotia's, which he says gives communities more time to look at factors such as community impact, possible alternate uses for parts of the building, and the added cost of busing students to consolidated schools farther away.

But Rousselle points out policy 409 already considers those very factors.

"This policy was put into place to take into consideration the different options, and the different points of view," the minister said. "You can ask Dr. Bennett. You can ask him if he believes that our policy is looking at the different elements, and he will recognize that, I'm sure."

Policy 409 was drafted after 1997 protests in the Acadian Peninsula over the planned closures of two rural schools.

Rousselle says he was happy to meet with the coalition on Tuesday but suggested the policy is unlikely to change.

Rousselle points out that only district education councils can recommend closures. His only role is to approve or reject a closure. He can't overrule a decision to keep a school open.

"We have to respect decisions taken at the local level," he said. If a district decides to keep a school open, he added, "it doesn't even reach my office."

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