Time to end the 'March Madness Educational Demolition Derby'

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Richmond, the primary-to-nine school I attended in north end Halifax, is long gone.

Not quite true.

The oldest section, ironically the one re-built after the 1917 Halifax Explosion, now serves as a family court building. The other two wings, hastily tacked on after World War II to accommodate then-exponentially expanding baby boom babies, were unceremoniously leveled after the wave crested, young families moved to the suburbs and Halifax finally outgrew its wasteful tradition of parallel Protestant-Catholic schools.

I can’t help thinking about Richmond’s fate whenever the province’s annual March Madness Educational Demolition Derby enters its final fevered days.

Last week, with today’s looming deadline for determining which schools no longer make the Survivor cut, provincial school boards voted to shutter at least five schools, amalgamate two others and put up 14—or more; who can keep count?—for review in the next year.

Which means more families will suffer through the same gut-wrenching process next year.

The issues are easy enough to catalogue: declining birth rates, rural depopulation, pinched provincial budgets, delayed-until-it’s-too-late building maintenance, continuing collapse of rural economies, more budget cuts…

The answers… less so.

While there is a growing consensus big is not necessarily better—particularly now that technology can connect students in the smallest rural schools with the Internet’s vast, comprehensive database of facts, ideas, life—the reality is cash-strapped school boards currently spend $100 million a year just to heat, light and maintain empty classrooms in more-than-half-empty school buildings.

One promising suggestion, touted by some parents and community groups, calls for under-used schools to become fully utilized community hubs, with classrooms sharing space with rent-paying community groups, non-profits, government offices, even businesses.

“We have to view these buildings as an asset and not a liability,” says CUPE Nova Scotia President Danny Cavanagh, who believes they could become “community centerpieces.”

While the department of education is experimenting with a modest version of the idea—SchoolsPlus combines government services with classrooms—it only currently plans to implement it in four schools a year. That’s not nearly enough.

The next March madness is less than a year away.

While there may be no easy answers, the current answer is no answer at all.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber, Website

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