Budget cut buffoonery

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I need to be a little careful. I’ve had my own disagreements with the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board. While it’s fair for those experiences, that history, to inform my views of the Wentworth school (potential) closure, it shouldn’t close my eyes to valid positions.

Here’s the fact: I support budget cuts and budget cuts can rarely be made without impacting someone. My understanding is that the board believes student numbers at the small Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School will decline, making the per-student cost of teaching at that location prohibitive.

Taken in isolation, the position that the school should be closed has some merit. At a minimum, thoughtful people could be on either side of the argument; on the side of closure, recognizing the pain it will cause but also making the choice to save resources for more cost-effective ways of delivering education.

But there’s more to this story. Much more.

Critics of the board argue student numbers will not decline. On the contrary, they say that the board’s prediction of decline is based on statistical projections, but they claims they’ve actually done a survey of real people in the community – counted real families and kids – and the school population is expected to grow.

One of the expenses of the small rural school is upkeep. The board has one view of the work the building needs, while a local contractor said he believes the poor condition of the roof, for example, has been exaggerated.

There’s also the role the school plays in the community. Wentworth already took a blow when the Trans-Canada was built. Loss of the school will be a drastic hit for the community. I think it is fair to say that taking the school away will almost certainly drastically reduce, if not completely eliminate, young families moving to the area.

Busing is an issue. It’s one thing for Grade 6 students to take a bus to Oxford or Pugwash. But imagine having to put your six-year-old on a bus for an hour each way. Who believes that’s reasonable?

Despite all these criticisms, the need to cut budgets is persuasive. And if a community isn’t economically viable, I don’t believe (as a general rule) it should be preserved with steady influxes of public cash. There is an argument to be made that keeping the school falls under the umbrella of that sort of ‘artificial’ preservation of a community or lifestyle.

So why am I rooting for the little guys?

A few reasons. The first is the giant impact the school closure will have. I know, the board isn’t responsible for saving communities, it’s responsible for schools. But this school doesn’t just serve the handful of kids currently attending – it’s a vital service to every person with a child who attends or a business frequented by the families whose children attend.

Then there’s the utter lack of imagination being shown by this school board (and perhaps others). We don’t need busing to bigger schools, we need an entirely new way of thinking about delivering education in rural areas. I’m not an expert on the subject, but teaching doesn’t have to fit a single blueprint. Surely there’s an affordable way for children in rural areas to be educated without sending them an hour out of the community? I realize this is a simplification, but any place there’s an adult who knows something and children to learn, education can happen. Let’s come up with new answers (and that’s a challenge to parents in the community, too!).

Then there’s the alleged intransigence supporters of the school are encountering in their dealings with the school board. Critics have even taken the step of submitting Freedom of Information requests. (http://www.cumberlandnewsnow.com/News/Local/2013-01-16/article-3157562/Suspicion-of-school-board-motives-runs-deep-in-Wentworth/1)

I have to say, this rings true to me. I am speaking now about opinions, not facts. (It’s not a fact the board is intransigent, it’s a viewpoint.) But my opinion is that this is a school board that is not as responsive to the public as it should be, and doesn’t feel the need to account for its decisions in the transparent manner I believe the public deserves.

Where is the board member who is supposed to represent the people of Wentworth? The silence is deafening. If that person believes the school should close, that person should be front and centre owning that position. If not, that person should be fighting the rest of the board tooth and nail.

It seems like every time this board tries to save money, they do it the wrong way – first with the brinksmanship of threatening to fire all librarians, and now with a threat to close a rural school and send children out of the community.

Kids deserve better. Parents deserve better. Taxpayers deserve better.

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