Paul MacNeill- Against the Tide

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Bloomfield Elementary is not a dying school. With a 227 strong student population, 60 per cent French Immersion, Bloomfield is a spirited school where parents are encouraged to drop in and the teaching staff is engaged in both the community and the education of our children.

Three years ago this community raised $100,000 in just 18 months to build a fully accessible playground that is a showcase for all students regardless of physical capacity. Not one cent of government money was used because the Department of Education refused to help.

According to number crunchers in the department, Bloomfield has a 79 per cent utilization rate, highest among the nine schools within Westisle’s Family of Schools. Student population in the region is projected to remain stable.

But despite it all, those same minions decree that Bloomfield must close. In a seemingly weighty listing of data supporting closure the bureaucracy rates as ‘fair’ the school’s ventilation system. It’s an odd conclusion given that just seven years ago the system was upgraded to state of the art, and today works like a top. Mistake or institutional bias? There have been other significant improvements in recent years, including a new roof. In short Bloomfield is the type of school, inside and out, all parents hope their children attend.

Up the road St. Louis Elementary faces the same fate. It is newer and in equally efficient condition. A long serving teacher, Paul Goguen, has built a gymnastic dynasty. It’s estimated 3,000 plus children have been a part of the Gymnos program. You can’t be a successful gymnast without a focus on nutrition, dedication and a healthy dose of teamwork. In short, Goguen instills in children the skills they need to be successful citizens, and that has a downstream positive impact on our economy and our health care system. It means nothing to Charlottetown’s education bureaucracy. They want St. Louis Elementary closed.

Here’s the rub. The proposed closures will not solve any of the significant issues impacting students but will negatively impact communities.

Closure will not offer faster access to psychologists, where wait times are an abysmal three plus years.

It will not offer better access to occupational therapy. In Charlottetown there is one therapist for four schools. In West Prince one-half position for nine schools.

It will not mean less time on busses. There are 5-year olds in West Prince who endure two 90 minute bus rides every day, a direct result of government’s decision not to replace retiring bus drivers.

It will not improve access to literacy coaches, a vital investment drastically cut back by the same bureaucracy that now wants to close schools.

It will result in 30 teaching positions being pulled from West Prince and transferred to areas of the province where overcrowding is an issue. And it will create an increased reliance on split classes.

How will any of this improve the education of our children? How will it build community? As one parent says, the Department of Education is teaching our children to leave.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan is responsible for this divisive, biased and wrong-headed process. It pits one school against another and one community against the other. But it has also poked the bear that is rural PEI.

From Tignish to East Point rural PEI is sick of being the whipping boy for bureaucrats and politicians who refuse to deal with real issues. The premier believes he is treating rural PEI fairly. He does not believe there is a rural and urban divide.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan could not be more wrong. He repeatedly points to individual business success stories, and there are many. But sectoral success alone does not build vibrant communities. Supporting Island business is a core responsibility of government, even in rural PEI. So is the provision of health care and education. You need both sectoral and community success to create the vibrancy that will attract and keep residents.

What the premier has created is a process that asks the wrong question.

If Wade MacLauchlan believes in rural PEI ask us what we need from government. Don’t lead with a fully loaded gun and say your school is going to close. Don’t promise to not close schools and then try and do just that. Don’t promise an elected school board and then appoint a three person board of directors that includes your hand-picked deputy minister. Who is Susan Willis accountable to? The public or the Minister of Education who has endorsed the closure report. If it’s the latter the next 60 day phase of public consultation is a sham.

The premier’s process creates at a minimum the perception of a conflict of interest – public or political interest – as well as placing the deputy in an untenable situation. The board also includes Harvey MacEwen, a respected former educator from West Prince as well as former politician Pat Mella, who had little care for taxpayers when as a member of the Atlantic Lottery Corporation Board of Directors she allowed salaries and expenses of bureaucrats to spiral out of control, squandering money that could have been invested in frontline education services.

How can anyone have any faith MacLauchlan’s board of directors will do anything but act on the will of the education bureaucracy? We can’t.

To its credit, West Prince will not be lulled into a regional fight pitting community against community. While the premier hides behind a fatally flawed process the rest of rural PEI is following the lead of our western neighbours. We are growing in strength.

The Liberal government ignores this tidal wave of anger at its peril. The premier must place an immediate moratorium on school closures and create a respectful dialogue with communities centering on priorities and investments including health care, education, economic development and other government services.

He must deal with the very real issue of rezoning in Charlottetown, exacerbated for eight years because his Minister of Education Doug Currie – who seems more interested in exiting politics than leading – lacked the courage to deal with it in 2008.

Successive governments have stripped away programs and services in rural areas while the bureaucracy in Charlottetown swells. We’ve endured health care cutbacks, school closures and a reduction in basic frontline services. Yet we generate the lion’s share of tax revenue.

It must stop.

There is only one good thing to come from Wade MacLauchlan’s failure to reform education and his embrace of the bureaucratic status quo – the premier has forced us to find our voice and we will be heard.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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(2) comments

Farmer

Great article Paul

KatieMac

Thank you Paul for standing up for schools in rural PEI and placing focus on Western PEI this week!

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