Countless memorials to a Prairie institution – the one-room schoolhouse – dot the highways and back roads of rural Manitoba. These bygone institutions, where thousands of Manitoba children learned how to read, write and do basic arithmetic, slowly disappeared as modern schools with room for hundreds of kids replaced these little centres of learning.
First the schools vanished; now it’s the children who can’t be found in rural Manitoba. With many small towns grappling over possible school closures this year, we should ask: Is it time for small, locally run schools to make a comeback in this province? As rural kids get ready to enjoy a much-deserved summer break, many of their parents are worried their children may not have a school to return to this fall.
Parents in the Park West School Division in western Manitoba have learned that several schools in their area will be closed and consolidated during the next few years, starting with Kenton School.
This kindergarten to Grade 8 school northwest of Brandon is scheduled to close next June, at which time 26 students will be forced to travel to nearby Hamiota or elsewhere to get their education. Other small towns are also facing the potential loss of their school: in Cypress River, a village of 200 people 92 kilometres southeast of Brandon, enrolment is expected to plunge from 35 students this year to as few as 11 pupils by September 2010.
Everyone seems to be reaching the same inescapable conclusion: Small schools with shrinking enrolments aren’t sustainable. Therefore, they must be closed. But does this have to be the case? What if parents and taxpayers could take the money they send to a far-off division board that wants to close their town’s school and use those dollars to finance a small, locally run charter school – the modern equivalent of the old one- or two-room schoolhouse – in their hamlet or village?
The way it stands now, some local taxpayers don’t get a very good deal for what they pay in education tax each year. Farmers, especially, are forced to part with thousands of dollars levied on their land and in turn see their kids spend countless hours on the school bus each year. As farms get larger and towns continue to shrink, that trend will only intensify.
Since Manitoba’s re-elected NDP government doesn’t appear willing to abandon the property tax system as a means of financing education, perhaps the answer is to take a closer look at how that money is spent and see if some of it can’t be re-allocated from the system if parents so choose.
Let’s face it: Why would a farmer with a $5,000 annual property tax bill want to continue paying for the public system to educate his or her children when that public system wants to put those kids on a bus for an hour each morning and afternoon?
Will that extra time on the school bus help the kids learn? Or will it impair their ability in the classroom as they get up at 6:30 every morning to catch the bus while their friends in town sleep until 7:45?
Chances are that farm family will feel it gets much value for the money it spends. But let’s say the producer could take a significant portion of that money allocated for the public system and invest it in a small charter school a few miles down the road. Would the farmer be happier then? Probably, as it would likely enhance the learning environment for his or her children and give that parent a greater sense of empowerment over their child’s education.
Schools close not only because of declining enrolment, but also because the schools that house these shrinking number of pupils are aging and need replacement. Because of the way capital dollars for education are allocated, it’s incredibly hard for school trustees and the province’s Public Schools Finance Board (PSFB) to justify spending several hundred thousand dollars on a school that only holds 20 or 30 students. It’s usually then, when schools need significant repairs, that they suddenly find themselves on the chopping block.
This would be solved if local communities could raise their own money to build smaller, more cost-efficient schools (or refurbish an empty building in the community) for a smaller group of children. Like the hockey rink and the hospital – two other small-town institutions under threat thanks to depopulation – schools could once again become a hub of community activity if their construction and operation could be put back into local hands rather than left in the grip of a regional bureaucracy.
If rural parents are willing to pay for their children’s basic education at a tiny school of 20 or fewer students, who are we to say no? It’s an option worth exploring as yet another crop of rural schools runs the risk of turning into a cairn on the side of the highway.
Curtis Brown is the editorial page editor of the Brandon Sun.