Any talk about school closures is sure to tear at the fabric of a small town.
“It’s disastrous,” says Yvon Godin, the mayor of the village of Bertrand on the Acadian peninsula.
The retired principal of the local elementary school speaks about the institution in the same breath as the local church.
“A school is like the soul of a community. Around here we’re losing businesses, we’re losing our churches and when we lose a school – it’s a major hit,” Godin says.
École Ola Léger, which houses students at the elementary and middle school levels in this village of 1,200, is one of a handful that School District 9 has been consulting parents about.
While the consultations in northern New Brunswick were brought to a sudden halt by Education Minister Jody Carr last week, the issue appears poised to be subject to debate in communities across the province.
Godin says parents in the region feel the district is set on closing their school and busing the 121 students, along with 64 of their colleagues at a school in nearby Saint-Léolin to a larger school in Grande-Anse that has only 51 students, but room to accommodate eight times that number.
Discussion over the future of schools in District 9 may be on hold as the process is reviewed, but the debate is also raising questions about how New Brunswick, facing a projected deficit of $820 million this year and dealing with a declining population in almost every county – and a steady decline in student enrolment in all but one of its 15 school districts – is handling the question of sustaining the province’s schools.
District 9 isn’t alone in tackling the issue.
Across the province, the total number of students attending provincial elementary, middle or high schools dropped by almost 8,500 students between 2006 and 2010. In fact, the only school district to see any growth over that period was School District 1, the French-language district serving the Moncton area, Saint John, Oromocto and Fredericton. Most of that is due to the growing population in Greater Moncton.
In Fredericton, District 18 is conducting meetings on the future of the Douglas Elementary School, Canada’s oldest continuously operating school. About $2 million worth of work is needed to bring the 137-year-old school up to today’s standards.
In Carleton County, District 14 is consulting with residents about the potential closure of Juniper Elementary School. The building, which has 18 students in two classes, is in need of $353,000 worth of capital improvements.
Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says there’s no question New Brunswick has to broach the issue.
“We have declining enrolments, we essentially have a bankrupt province, we have students in need of education and we have all of these costs.”
“Some of these assets are probably going to close,” he says, noting that the issue is a veritable political tightrope.
“The challenge is to have the discussion without everyone hitting the panic button, calling each other names,” he says. “That’s exactly what’s happening in Nova Scotia and nothing is getting done.”
Gérard Robichaud, the chairman of District Education Council 9, has faced his share of criticism in recent weeks over the meetings in communities such as Bertrand, but he says a discussion has to happen.
The school district based in Tracadie-Sheila is facing a demographic crunch. The student population, which has fallen by 1,000 students over the last five years, is expected to plummet by another 1,000 over the next few years, leaving it with about 5,000 students in 2015.
Robichaud says the question is whether paying for the bricks, mortar and upkeep of all 22 of the district’s schools is the best use of the district’s budget.
“Looking at the money, do we put it toward helping the kids in the classroom, or do we put it toward maintaining the infrastructure? That’s the question we have to ask.”
“It costs a fortune for the buildings and we can’t offer all the services that the kids deserve,” he says.
Robichaud, who says he hasn’t recommended the closure of any schools, said most of the parents he has spoken with see it as a simple choice.
While the Grande-Anse school is using just one-eighth of its capacity, the other two schools aren’t big enough to absorb its 51 students.
“It’s the same cost to heat full or empty. It’s not so tough a decision.”
But Robichaud knows closing a school these days is seen by many as akin to sounding the death knell for a community.
“I understand them,” he says.
District education councils have to hold a minimum of three public meetings on the possible closure of a school – one to inform the school community of the council’s intention and the steps to be followed, a second meeting to allow presentations and a final meeting to provide the public with the results of the consultation, including an account of the factors considered and the resulting recommendation being submitted to the minister of education.
The final rests with the minister, who can only withhold approval of a school closure if procedural fairness has not been applied or relevant educational options have not been considered.
Carr has said all options have to be examined to look at how dollars are spent to ensure the money has the greatest impact in the classroom.
“What I’m working to do is work with the district councils and the stakeholders – communities – to find savings and efficiencies and at the same time meet our educational goals.”
“It may come down to choices, it might come down to priorities, it’s going to come down to new ways of delivering services,” Carr said.
Jean-François Richard, dean of education at the Université de Moncton, says the topic needs to be addressed.
“At the point we’re at with the lower birthrate and we have budget constraints, you don’t have any choice but to consider it.”
But it isn’t always easy to meet a budget and a community’s needs.
“They have to make sure criteria other than financial ones are taken into account to ensure rural communities are well served and maintain their sense of identity.”
The mayor of Bertrand worries the first is about to win out over the second in his case. It’s a move that he feels would have lasting repercussions.
“When kids don’t feel connected to their community because they’re going to school elsewhere, they’re not as interested in coming back to their community.”
“It’s certain that if we don’t have a school here, families aren’t going to be as interested in moving here. That’s for sure.”