The DEC has voted, the Sustainability Study, is over—What now?
Last night, the District Education Council (DEC) voted to close Marshview Middle School and recommended a building assessment to determine if middle school grades could be added to the Salem Elementary School to make it a K-8 school. If this study determines such a plan is not feasible, then the DEC further recommends that a new K-8 be built in Sackville.
The CBC report of last night’s DEC meeting suggests that the DEC vote is a rejection of the Sackville Schools 2020 pitch. While we are disappointed that the DEC is not able to signal more meaningful cooperation with our community, we do appreciate the DEC’s efforts to bring the sustainability study process to a close in a way that anticipates further changes in the shape and character of education in Sackville.
Support for SS2020
We were pleased to hear from DEC members about the overwhelming support the SS2020 vision has in this community. In addition to the 10 presentations from the previous public meeting, they received over 60 letters from community members. We were told that more than 50 of those letters were in support of the SS2020 vision. The DEC also received SS2020 support letters from various levels of government, community groups and others. It is clear from all this input that there is basic agreement that community-supported learning is supported and valued in our community.
Even community members who proposed a different configuration from that envisioned by SS2020 (e.g. requests to “leave TRHS alone”), still basically agree that community-supported learning, additional community resources and the school communities themselves are the most important parts of teaching and learning. At the same time, there exists a fear that the usual governmental processes do not take these “extra” elements into account and they would be lost in a new build; i.e. the restrictive “ed. specs” used by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to plan a new school.
Over the past three and a half years, the SS2020 group has been looking at alternative ways of working with the usual restrictive processes involved in the provision of new school infrastructure. Sometimes this has been as simple as just thinking more broadly about what’s possible. For example, other options that are not in the usual processes of building new schools could include alternative funding sources, the consolidation of community collaborations and partnerships that provide additional support and resources, and the implementation of grounding values such as autonomy and local governance. Certainly, the work of SS2020 on many of these issues has come a long way over the past few years and there are many supporters waiting in the wings, hoping for something more for Sackville.
It was heartening to hear the DEC include in their motion a request to be involved and work with community in the location and configuration of a new school. DEC members spoke of the many valuable learning partnerships playing out in our schools and of their intention to support such things with their decision. Indeed, the DEC intended their decision as strong encouragement of our community’s continued push for collaboration and innovative learning. That said, what is clear from last night’s meeting is that the DEC is not currently in a position to act in ways that are “outside the box.” Indeed, following the meeting last night, a number of DEC members acknowledged to us that this inability to deviate from their own processes and policies is a real problem and something that gets in the way of innovation and creative development. Going by their comments during the meeting, the DEC members clearly sympathized with issues of educational reform and the need for innovation and creative solutions. They want to do more but don’t feel they can. That said, the DEC’s decision may well be a strategic one: in the end it helps us move forward as a community towards something that fits the character of Sackville more closely.
Last night’s recommendation serves a few important purposes:
It finishes the sustainability process for Sackville. This necessary official process had to be completed before anything more innovative could take place in this community. With the recommended closure of Marshview, the reconfiguration of schools in Sackville becomes less complicated. If schools are renovated or replaced, there is no need for further sustainability studies, and so no further bureaucratic speed bumps slowing things down.
The proposal to study the feasibility of moving Marshview students to Salem will likely end up in a new K-8. Last year’s Ernst & Young Infrastructure Review commissioned by the District shows that the costs of renovating or adding on to Salem, a school in “poor” condition, would very likely surpass their own threshold for a new build (i.e. more than 50% of the cost of a new build). This being the case, the DEC has essentially recommended a new K-8 school but held back from giving any further parameters or restrictions. The good news here is that the buffer of the building assessment prevents a new school project from being funneled directly into the usual “ed. specs” and opens up the possibility of configuring a new K-8 school in very different ways.
There was nothing in the DEC’s recommendations for Tantramar Regional High School. The infrastructure of TRHS remains in a problematic state, and with no “midlife” upgrade in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, there’s nothing preventing our community from considering the kinds of infrastructure that would best support the wonderful things happening in this school. Again, holding back on making more concrete recommendations for TRHS has opened up opportunities for different kinds of solutions and supports for our high school community.
The sustainability study is now complete. What are our next steps? The DEC has made their recommendation, so now it’s up to the Minister to approve a plan to move forward with closing Marshview and considering a K-8. Of course, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, and within the current processes, Sackville can’t expect terribly much to change any time soon. Even the closure of Marshview, the “no brainer” of the sustainability study, could take many, many years to happen. While it is certainly not their intention, the DEC decision really does maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future. Marshview will only close after all of the studies are complete, the various recommendations given, a sustainability study of Salem happens (if it’s needed), new schools are planned and built, and so on. Also, it’s worth noting that the typical process governing all these steps does not afford meaningful community involvement in the design or location of new schools. If we sit back and let it happen, all of this will be years and years away with little input from the community. The bottom line is that there is nothing in last night’s DEC decision that helps the schools in our community now.
The SS2020 view is that the DEC has done their work and have essentially handed the project back to the community. During the meeting, the DEC expressed great support for what our community is doing. They are now relying on us to take the project further in ways they cannot.
What do we want to do? What kind of school or schools do we want for Sackville? How will we integrate these into the life of the town that we so value here?