By MARILLA STEPHENSON
“THERE IS GOOD to be found in Education Minister Karen Caseyâ€™s plans to change the process under which schools are reviewed for potential closure.But thereâ€™s no denying that the drawn-out timelines provide a timely political duck for the Tory minority government.
It is an old political strategy to call for a study or review of some kind to get a hot topic off the front burner with voters.
Last March, the Tories, clearly election-bound under new leader and Premier Rodney MacDonald, opted for just that approach when then-education minister Jamie Muir announced a moratorium on school closures.
He appointed a two-person committee to review the closure procedure, which meant that 11 schools â€” mostly smaller rural facilities in various Nova Scotia communities â€” were off the chopping block until after the election. Needless to say, families in the communities involved were delighted with the last-minute reprieve.
Last week, the report was released from that committee, which spent much of the fall consulting stakeholders.
In this weekâ€™s interim response to the report, Casey said she will bring forward amendments to the Education Act this spring that will convert many of the recommendations into law.
Her changes will include removal of the word “closure” from the review process and the expansion of the time frame from four months to a year. The process must begin on April 1 of any given year and be concluded the following March 31.
The initial review request must include a recommendation from school board staff and is to be followed by a second review by a study committee.
All well and good. The changes will also make the process uniform across the province.
And in a hook aimed at south-end Halifax parents fighting the closure of three small elementary schools proposed to be replaced with one large school, the Education Department has said it “will consider examining the current process and related legislation that governs the school consolidation process.” This process is called consolidation, rather than a closure review, because it includes new construction.
These announcements achieve a couple of things, besides improving the review process. They take the immediate heat out of the situation in Halifax, where Casey has called for more consultation with parents before the changes proceed.
They also mean that unless amendments planned for the spring session of the legislature next month are passed before April 1, no schools will be closed (with the possible exception of “consolidation” cases) until at least 2009.
That translates into the strong likelihood that, once again, the Tories could head into an election next spring without the meltdown politics of school closures hanging over their heads.
Given Muirâ€™s moratorium of last spring, Caseyâ€™s strategy looks like a piece of political deja vu that will likely buy time for some communities, even as the Tories fight to hang on to a few more votes for their next outing at the ballot box.