Nova Scotia

School-closure process needs more study, say N.S. party leaders

The closure of rural schools is often a hugely controversial subject. At least two major political party leaders say it's time for more government involvement in the process.

NDP and Tories say hub-school approach needs overhaul, Liberals say things starting to improve

The closure of rural schools is often a hugely controversial subject. At least two major political party leaders say it's time for more government involvement in the process.

Stacey Godsoe knows what a small school can mean for the students who attend class there, and what a small school can mean for a small community.

"They just have loved it," Godsoe said of her two children who attend Petite Rivière Elementary School. "All the community is involved in that school. It's the centre point, it's the heart of the community."

Godsoe and others are now deeply involved in a fight to try to save their community school, joining a growing list of communities that have argued such schools have value despite cost pressures within school boards.

Government should make the call

But even with a system that was intended to address situations such as this, the rollout of hub schools has been a slow — and often disappointing — process.

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said the system in place isn't working. In fact, Baillie said it shouldn't be school boards that decide the fate of schools; that responsibility should fall to the Education Department.

"What's particularly not working is where the school boards close schools and the politicians open them. That leads to really bad decision-making," he said.

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie says it should be up to the Education Department, not school boards, to decide if a school should close. (CBC)

"The only way we're ever going to get this right is if we put them all together under one roof where businesslike decisions can be made in the best interests of the education of children."

Not just about education

That approach includes considering the economic and social consequences for a community if it loses its school, he said. Many communities see their school as the last way to attract young families, said Baillie.

"There is an economic benefit to that and it never gets considered."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says the government should help communities develop their proposals for keeping rural schools open and helping them remain viable. (CBC)

NDP Leader Gary Burrill also thinks the present system for considering school closures is a failure, referring specifically to the closure of the school in River John.

The per-student cost of most rural schools is more than it is in more densely populated areas, said Burrill, but because there's value in those schools to the future of those communities, he believes that's a cost worth paying.

"If you take the school out of rural communities, you change the landscape of the picture in a very serious, negative way."

Communities need help

Burrill said what's missing from the hub-school process is involvement from the government. He believes the government should play a role in helping to develop proposals to keep schools open and viable.

"Communities and parents and advocates ought not to have the sole responsibility for making a proposal that works," he said.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil conceded there have been growing pains with the hub model, but he believes the recent deal that appears to have saved the school in Louisbourg is reason for hope in other communities.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil says having public- and private-sector support goes a long way toward making hub school proposals a success. (CBC)

Having public- and private-sector involvement, as they do in Louisbourg, is a big step, said McNeil.

"I think we need to make sure that, particularly in those communities where there's capacity, is there a role that the private sector can play to reduce some of those costs, which in turn allows those schools to remain open?" he said.

McNeil and Baillie both said the administrative offices in school boards also need to be reviewed to ensure they are working in the best interests of students.

with files from Carolyn Ray


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