Time for the School Closure Moratorium to End

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

It has been almost one year since the Minister of Education announced that the provincial government was implementing a moratorium on school closures in Manitoba. Now that we have had the opportunity to see the moratorium in effect for some time, the evidence is clear that it remains as misguided a policy as it was one year ago.

The number of students in our province continues to decline. From a high of approximately 247,000 students in 1970, there are now only about 180 000 students in our public schools—a 27% decrease.

The effects of this decline can be seen firsthand as many school buildings are practically empty. In fact, over one-third of all public schools in the province have fewer than 150 students. Many of these schools were originally designed to accommodate two or three times as many students as they currently have in their buildings.

Fortunately, some regions in the province are growing and in those school divisions it is necessary to hire additional teachers and build new schools to accommodate increased student populations. However, the majority of school divisions are declining in population. In these jurisdictions, it makes sense for fewer teachers to be hired and empty schools to be closed.

Before the school closure moratorium came into effect, many school divisions with declining enrolment were following this common sense approach and preparing to amalgamate schools. These plans were summarily scuttled by a ministerial directive.

In St. James-Assiniboia School Division, Hedges Middle School and Ness Middle School are located less than two kilometres from each other and both are operating substantially below capacity. Despite the fact that the school division had planned to amalgamate the two schools and enhance the program options available to students, the moratorium prevented this from taking place. It doesn’t make sense to force a school division to keep two under-populated schools open even though they could easily be combined in one building.

In another situation, Louis Riel School Division had been considering the closure of Archwood School located in southeast Winnipeg. The recommendation that was going to be presented to the board was to bus the students to a nearby school where more programs were available and convert Archwood School into a dedicated daycare centre. By forcing the school to remain open, students have been kept in a school with fewer programming options while the neighbourhood lost out on a much-needed daycare centre that could have served families in southeast Winnipeg.

A provincial moratorium on school closures is not a viable approach to the problem of declining student enrolment. It forces shrinking schools to remain open, costs taxpayers extra money, limits programming options available to students, and fails to take the wishes of parents into account. Moreover, it serves to further undermine the ability of local trustees and school administrators to exercise meaningful authority over schools under their jurisdiction.

Instead of attempting to micro-manage schools with a misguided school closure moratorium, the provincial government should undertake a significantly different approach and make it easier for parents to send their children to whatever school they choose. School openings and closures will then follow parental choice.

Schools that focus on student achievement will become larger as more parents will seek to enrol their children at these schools while under-performing schools will have to change their focus or face closure. In contrast, a moratorium on school closures rewards under-performing schools and their staffs by making it impossible for their schools to face real consequences for failing to meet the needs of their students. There is no sensible purpose in forcing a school to remain open when not enough students want to attend it.

By making it easier for parents to send their children to the schools of their choice, schools that are successful will expand while those that fail to meet the needs of their students will eventually close. Allowing parents the choice to decide which schools will close makes much more sense than an arbitrary policy that forces near-empty schools to remain open at all costs.

By letting the choices of parents guide which schools will expand and which will close, the government will encourage educational excellence in Manitoba. This is exactly the type of message that the province should send to parents and students.