By GRANT FROST
Well, Zach Churchill certainly isn’t wasting any time.
Last Friday, the new education minister announced somewhat quietly in a letter to local school boards that the sometimes controversial, often painful school review process would be halted immediately.
Brakes on. Full stop.
In a somewhat succinct letter, the new minister informed school boards that this decision was brought about because of an election promise by the Liberal government to embark on yet another review of any number of educational processes. To quote Minister Churchill “…the government committed to a complete review of the administrative structures of the education system” during the last election, and so it would appear that, until that review wraps up, the school review process is in a holding pattern.
Now, I know I haven’t been exactly kind to this government, so it should surprise no one that I am somewhat skeptical of the value of another government review. This one, however, is a real head-scratcher for me.
You see, the thing of it is, the current system we have to review schools was the result of another government review, embarked upon by the NDP government in 2013. That review was actually the second one done by the NDP government — and although criticized at the time as being more about politics than public education by then Opposition leader Stephen McNeil, the review process of, well, the review process, was quite extensive.
Back in 2013, the decision to halt the process received mixed reviews, and although some small-school advocates saw this as a positive step, several school boards were reportedly frustrated by the decision. Many had spent considerable time and money in reviewing schools under the old system, and had arrived at some very tough decisions around school closures based on the guidelines they had been given. To now have these decisions halted just prior to their implementation seemed to devalue all the effort that had gone into making them in the first place.
One can only imagine the excitement that Mr. Churchill’s rather sudden announcement elicited around school board tables this time around.
Of particular note for us here in metro Halifax is the halting of the realignment of the Auburn Drive/Cole Harbour family of schools that was launched in the fall of 2016. That particular exercise involved a review of 17 separate school sites, brought about by another somewhat questionable government decision to build a new high school in Eastern Passage.
In that case, the School Options Committee (SOC), made up almost entirely of volunteers from each affected community, was given a mere nine months to gather information and input from the various stakeholders and make recommendations to the Halifax regional school board.
This review involved dozens of meetings and countless hours, as the SOC gathered data, toured communities and digested information. It also involved a number of public meetings, each attended by hundreds of concerned parents, teachers and community members from the affected areas.
Impeded by bad weather, a provincial election and the teachers strike, the group still managed to complete its mandate in the afforded time frame, and had set forth a variety of recommendations that would see, among other things, Cole Harbour High and Auburn Drive High aligning as one school.
And all this effort may very well have been for naught as yet another government minister wants to have yet another review.
Now, I had no particular horse in that race, as they say. The realignment of those schools affected me neither personally nor professionally. But from the outside looking in, the process seemed sound. What I can’t quite wrap my head around is what Mr. Churchill hopes to accomplish by reviewing the process again, particularly considering the extent of the 2013 effort.
I am no fan of school closures. To say that they can be a death knell for rural communities is certainly no great stretch. And considering that there are other options available, including the often considered hub schools model or the yet to be discussed four-day school week, shutting school doors should come as a last resort.
However, unless Mr. Churchill has such measures in mind, his decision to review the process seems, to paraphrase his boss, to be more about politics than public education.
Here’s hoping that under the new minister, we do not find ourselves wandering aimlessly down the same old roads.
Grant Frost is an educational commentator who has been teaching for over 20 years. More of his commentary can be found at Frostededucation.com.