© COMMUNICATIONS NOVA SCOTIA
Education Minister Karen Casey and consultation committee chairman Robert Fowler address the media at a Nov. 26 news conference.
By Tina Comeau
Public meetings will take place across the province in January to give the public an opportunity for input on a review of the school review process.
Input will also be collected online, via email or through regular mail. The education minister is expecting a lot of feedback.
“We do expect that there will be a lot of interest and a lot of input, that’s important to us,” said Karen Casey during a Nov. 26 news conference where a discussion paper that will form the basis of the upcoming consultations was also released.
“Our goal in this whole process is to make sure anyone who wants to come forward with any concerns, recommendations or ideas feels free to do that,” said Casey.
“Is the problem with the process or is it just that people don’t like it when their schools close?” a reporter asked Casey, to which she responded, “I think people obviously have concerns . . . I think the fact that there have been changes made . . . suggests that people are listening to those concerns and trying to make changes to respond to those concerns.
“Will it ever be a process that is without anxiety? No. Will it ever be a process that doesn’t need to be tweaked? I would say not,” she said. “I think governments are to be commended for responding to concerns that people bring forward.”
The minister should be presented with recommendations by Feb. 28. Any changes would be made through legislation prior to April 1, which is when school boards could start the next round of school reviews.
Public meetings will be held in Yarmouth, Amherst, Berwick, Bridgewater, Halifax Regional Municipality, Port Hawkesbury, Sydney and Truro. The locations and dates will be announced soon.
Robert Fowler, chaired the committee that prepared the discussion paper and will head the consultation committee.
“Right through to the people who have the responsibility to make the decision, I don’t think there is anybody left untouched with this because it speaks to kids and how they’re educated in their communities,” he said.
This review and consultation was triggered by former education minister Ramona Jennex who in April, just days after the last round of school reviews in the province ended, stated that the existing school review process was flawed and should be reviewed.
Topics in the discussion paper include:
• Although school boards do long-range operational planning for their regions, they don’t necessarily involve the school community before plans are presented at school board meetings.
• School boards and school communities have expressed concerns about how schools are identified for review.
• A variety of stakeholders said data used for identification reports and impact assessment reports can become a flashpoint for disagreement between school communities and school boards. This data is used throughout the school review process and decision makers rely on the information. Based on comments from parents and community members, school communities do not always trust the information in these reports.
• Stakeholders are concerned about the lack of flexibility in the process and the lack of options for schools with unique circumstances.
The discussion paper also speaks about recognizing schools as community assets and allowing school boards to consider innovative ways to keep a school in the community.
It also touches on the financial burden municipalities can experience when schools are closed and buildings are turned over to the local municipal unit.
The discussion paper makes note of the burden underutilized school buildings create, noting a well-used and well-maintained building is a valuable asset to public education and the community, but an outdated or underused building can become a huge liability.
“Sometimes, a school building that is considered a social asset by the community becomes a financial liability to the school board,” the discussion paper states.
The paper also points to a declining population of young people that is resulting in declining enrolment in schools. From a provincial enrolment figure of 150,599 in the 2002-03 school year, the figure is projected to drop to 117,020 by the school year 2017-18.
In the Tri-County Regional School Board the enrolment figure, over the same period, is projected to decline from 8,611 to 5,319 students. The only school board in the province projected to see an enrolment increase is the CSAP, going from 4,059 students in 2002-03 to a projected enrolment of 5,319 in 2017-18.
Consultation will begin in December, prior to the January public meetings. The committee will gather input from the public, school advisory councils, school boards, the teachers' union, municipalities and others.
More information about the process, the discussion paper and the schedule of meetings can be found at www.ednet.ns.ca/schoolreviewprocess .