COMMUNITY EDITORIAL BOARD: Can't afford the Caddy? Keep walking

By Bryce McBride, Daily Observer community editorial board

A student accommodation review by the Renfrew County District School Board has resulted in a recommendation to close the school. Starting in the fall, Westmeath's students would be bussed to Beachburg Public School instead.

A student accommodation review by the Renfrew County District School Board has resulted in a recommendation to close the school. Starting in the fall, Westmeath's students would be bussed to Beachburg Public School instead.

Recently the Renfrew County District School Board moved to go ahead with the planned closure of Westmeath and Madawaska Public Schools. As my mother taught at Westmeath P.S. and as four generations of my family have attended the school, this decision by the board frankly hurts.

The rationale behind the school closures is a familiar one - efficiency. At current enrolment levels, operating the schools is simply too costly per student.

However, taking a step back, one has to ask: Why is it so costly to educate students in small schools? In answering this question, we come face-to-face with the merciless logic of all centralizing systems.

If we were to look back 50 years or so, we would find a very different public school system that was, for the most part, financed by local ratepayers and therefore empowered to provide services in a fashion that suited the needs and resources of the community. As an example, my school bus when I attended Westmeath P.S. was a van driven by its owner.

Since that time the provincial government has come to dominate the financing and delivery of public education. The rationale for doing so was twofold. The primary intention was to ensure that every student in the province had access to the same standard of education. Second, it was also thought that a more centralized system would be able to provide quality education more cheaply than the previous jumble of local school boards.

However, centralization has very different effects in the short term and in the long term. In the short term, it is likely that the provincial ministry was able to, through its buying power, procure materials at lower cost and bring in standardized procedures that used scarce resources more effectively.

In the long term, though, centralized systems are prone to two damaging tendencies. First of all, the bureaucrats administering the system often get carried away with standardizing procedures and guidelines as it is much easier to monitor and enforce one set of rules than to adapt them to local circumstances. Secondly, the standards themselves tend to become higher over time as one sure way to get promoted in a bureaucracy is to implement new policy initiatives.

In the context of education, this has resulted in smaller rural schools having more responsibilities and resources than in the past, as the standards of what schools need to offer have risen and as every school in the province is required to adhere to these standards.

Thus, while when I went to Westmeath P.S. back in the 1970s there were four rooms, three class teachers and one itinerant French teacher serving Grades 1 to 8, during the time that my son attended the school there were more rooms, more staff, a kindergarten program, computers in the classrooms with Internet access and additional curricular offerings such as music. Further, while in my time students with special educational needs only had access to the expertise of their classroom teachers, in recent times such students have been able to benefit from specialist teachers and programs.

While these changes have been positive, they have also added to the cost of operating smaller schools. Thus, school board trustees looking at smaller schools face a difficult choice. Do they continue spending more and more money per student operating such schools in accordance with current standards or do they shut them down?

This is sort of like telling someone of modest means looking for a car that their only options are getting a Cadillac or continuing to walk. However, as my father likes to say, second class riding always beats first class walking. What would second class riding look like in the context of a school like Westmeath P.S.?

Using the current funding formula for Ontario public schools of around $11-12,000 per student per year, a school such as Westmeath P.S. with 55 students would have an annual operating budget of over $600,000. As the standard for schools is for 75 per cent of the budget to be devoted to staff salaries with the remainder devoted to maintenance, supplies and other operating costs, that would suggest that the school could afford to employ between four and five full-time staff members.

Four teachers covering kindergarten and Grades 1 to 3, 4 to 6 and 7 to 8, along with a part-time French teacher, would be able to give students the same standard of education I received back in the 1970s. If asked, most people in the community would likely be in favour of giving up some of the programs and resources added in recent years in order to keep their local school open.

However, so long as public education is centrally planned and administered such an outcome is inconceivable. Unfortunately, if a community is no longer able to support a school that can offer the programs and adhere to the standards mandated by the central authorities, the school will close. Unfortunately, if a community can't afford a Cadillac it has to walk, or more precisely, its children have to take a bus.

Next week: Betty Ryan

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