What's next for small schools on P.E.I.?

After a lengthy fight to keep their schools open, some supporters say there's no clear plan to address outstanding issues around student capacity, school utilization, and overcrowding. Without that plan, they say another battle over school closures is inevitable.

'No one has the ball,' says parent, while another sees next closure battle just around the corner

A member of the St. Jean Home and School Association says another round of school closures is 'inevitable,' because issues around school utilization weren't addressed by the last school review. (Kerry Campbell/CBC News)

Just hours before the spring sitting of the P.E.I. legislature began April 4, Premier Wade MacLauchlan held a media conference where he explained that "now is not the time to close schools."

The night before, at a packed public meeting that included an RCMP security detail, the board of the Public Schools Branch voted to close two schools out of five that were up for consideration. Cabinet would soon veto those closures.

During question period on that opening day of the legislature, the premier referenced the public effort communities had put forward to try to save their schools.

"I acknowledge that this has been a lot of hard work, that there has been passion, that people have had to come together and address the future of their communities," he said.

"This is a great moment, and we have to go forward and we have to go forward by taking advantage of, and by harnessing, those good energies and that commitment."

No one 'has the ball,' says proponent

But with the school review over and no clear path laid out in terms of what comes next, some of those who fought to keep their schools open are wondering how and where to direct those energies in order to ensure the schools stay that way.

School supporters at a meeting in Kinkora on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. (Stephanie Brown/CBC)

"I think the issue right now is that no one has the ball," said Marcella Ryan, president of the Belfast Home and School Association. Belfast was one of the five schools considered for closure.

The directors of the Public Schools Branch ultimately did not recommend it close, citing the long bus routes that would be needed if the school was closed as a reason for keeping it open, but Ryan noted future directors could see the issue differently.

She said government should be studying a number of classroom-related issues, including the impact of long bus trips on student learning, as well as class composition and class size studies "to ensure that future decisions are made based on those findings."

'School closures will be an ongoing threat'

Ryan said community members want to discuss with government the possibility of turning Belfast into a "hub-model" school, including services like daycare or municipal offices, with rent revenues offsetting operating costs.

"School closures will be an ongoing threat if we … are unable to use our schools differently to adjust to current population trends," Ryan said.

Marcella Ryan says without changes to the way school buildings are utilized by communities, 'school closures will be an ongoing threat.' (Brian Higgins/CBC)

But Minister of Education Doug Currie has said hub schools are not on government's agenda. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told CBC News the department is prepared to support initiatives put forward by community groups, but won't take a lead role.

A statement was provided on behalf of the minister which read: "Education will be happy to participate in economic development opportunities that positively impact schools and learning. Our immediate priority is to support the transition and the Public Schools Branch in getting ready for new students and teachers in September.

"We will continue to support the educational needs of students in small schools."

Rezoning taking students away, says Home and School

Melissa Sellar from the St. Jean Home and School Association said another round of school closures is "inevitable," because the school review didn't end up addressing the primary issues it was supposed to address: inequities in the utilization of schools, with some overcapacity and some far undercapacity.

Directors of the Public Schools Branch voted to close St. Jean, but that decision was overturned by the MacLauchlan cabinet.

Students who live across the street from St. Jean School have been rezoned to another school a kilometre away, causing fears St. Jean will once again be targetted for closure. (Kerry Campbell/CBC News)

However, Sellar said the rezoning put in place by the branch will reduce the student population at St. Jean even further.

Students who live right across the street from the school are now zoned to attend West Kent a kilometre away.

Before the review those students could attend either school. She said much of what's left of St. Jean's shrinking zone includes non-residential areas of the downtown core.

Sellar said it's "very clear … these zones were intended to keep St. Jean underutilised, meanwhile Sherwood Elementary remains overcrowded and L.M. Montgomery remains overcapacity."

On the closing day of the legislature, MacLauchlan told reporters economic development and population growth would ensure the future sustainability of the schools that had been slated for closure.

When asked for government's long-term plan to deal with declining enrolments at small schools, the premier replied: "Grow the population. Grow the economy — and that's what we're doing."


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.