The recent disagreement within a local School Options Committee (SOC) shows the inherent limitations of the private-public partnership (P3) model which financed school construction in the 1990s.
The SOC examining the future of five schools in the Town of Antigonish and surrounding communities has recommended that the Strait regional school board (SRSB) proceed with the closure of the most recently-built structure in the feeder system.
During a meeting on March 6, a committee which was formed to review the Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School feeder system, voted 7-4 in favour of closing Antigonish Education Centre (AEC), a P3 school constructed in 2000. This vote took place less than two weeks after SOC representatives confirmed at a public meeting in Antigonish that the committee was deliberating on a status-quo option.
As a result of the vote, the SRSB will now consider a SOC recommendation to house students from Grades Primary to 6 in three of the feeder system’s schools – St. Andrew Junior School, St. Andrew’s Consolidated School, and H.M. MacDonald School – with all students from Grades 7-12 to be housed at the Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional High School.
With the SRSB set to make a decision no later than April 30, the four dissenting members of the SOC have jointly filed a minority report to the board explaining their decision to reject the SOC’s official recommendation. And, the group’s chair said the most recent public meeting left the committee with more feedback to consider than it received in the first two public sessions.
But chair Deepak Prasad explained that closing AEC could free up resources to ensure the proper amount of staffing and programs for the remaining four schools. The SOC chair said the annual operating costs for AEC is more than $520,000, which equates to approximately six classroom teachers and 18 teacher assistants.
Another fact that cannot be overlooked is that AEC and St. Andrew Junior School are situated near each other, and both are close to the regional high school, meaning both schools can easily fill in the gap from the closure of AEC.
While that seems straightforward, the fact that AEC is closing despite being the newer building illustrates how the P3 system does not work.
The P3 school is so expensive to run, it is cheaper to close it and provide the surviving schools with the resources they need.
And this is being proposed despite the controversy it is generating in the community. The situation is so severe, Prasad told The Reporter he would have removed one member based on information he later received and after disagreements within the committee over the necessity of a secret ballot.
Given the limited financial resources of the province, it is a better option to close a newer school and transfer that money into the classroom, even in the face of opposition from the community. From a financial standpoint, it works, and that’s only because the P3 model does not.
It will now be up to the SOC, and more so the school board, to decide if that makes sense for parents and students.