The demographic and fiscal information offers clear insights into the realities and long-term viability for the future of Island schools. Demographic and population shifts reveal trends that affect school enrolments, most notably in small communities.
The 2016- 2017 Prince Edward Island budget allocated $252.2 million (or 15% of the budget) towards Education, Early Learning, and Culture. This department is funded mainly by Island taxpayers, but also federal financial support in the form of transfer payments. Currently, there are elementary schools such as Georgetown Elementary which operate at 28% capacity, with an expected decline to 26% in 2022. Meanwhile, there are schools operating on Prince Edward Island such as Glen Stewart in Charlottetown, which operates at as high as 116.2% occupancy. Clearly, the current zonings structures are not acceptable, and the consequences result in subpar student environments for both those students in overpopulated and underpopulated schools. There is evidently an urgent need for schools to be rezoned or if need be closed, to attain more streamlined and efficient use of government funds.
Prince Edward Island has an aging and retiring native population. Rural communities have seen a notable decline in populations. This is mostly due to emigration to larger, more urban communities such as Charlottetown or especially Stratford; however, a great number of Islanders are leaving the province altogether. Prince Edward Island has a provincial annual emigration rate of 3%. This is far above the national average which is well below 1%. Although many Islanders leave the province in search of better opportunities, there are plenty of international immigrants coming to Prince Edward Island, actually making the provincial population increase annually. These immigrants coming to PEI who now contribute to the provincial economy and community often have young families when they come here, with children that attend local elementary schools. This has seen an enrollment increase only notably in Charlottetown and Stratford area schools, however, as very few immigrant families make rural communities their home, preferring rather live in urban centers. This combination of emigrating rural households and incoming international families to Charlottetown and Stratford has resulted in overpopulated schools in town, and underpopulated rural schools.
By looking at each community, it reveals information as to why these decisions to rezone and close individual schools were made. Such as in Montague where the number of children from birth to age 17 in the Montague family of school's catchment area has declined from 2779 in 2010 to 2303 in 2016 and is projected to decline to 2137 in 2022. The Montague family of schools contains two schools planned for closure: Belfast Consolidated (with 32% enrolment) and Georgetown Elementary (with 28% enrolment). These enrollment numbers are certainly unsustainable, and with projected decreases in future local population government response is needed, or they will continue to be a significant economic burden on the province.
The West Isle family of schools also expects a decrease in future enrollment with the number of children from birth to age 17 in the family's catchment area having decreased from 3220 in 2010 to 2746 in 2016 and is projected to decrease to 2628 in 2022. An expected 20% decrease in 12 years is significant. In this district, Bloomfield Elementary (79% occupancy), and St. Louis Elementary (58% occupancy) are recommended for closure. These enrolments are not nearly as low as the Montague area schools, and it should be looked into whether restructuring some school zonings could allow for more sustainable and consistent enrollment across the area.
The Charlottetown elementary schools have seen diverse demographic trends across the two families of schools: Colonel Gray’s and Charlottetown Rural’s. The Colonel Gray family of schools expects an enrollment decline in seven out of nine elementary schools. One of these schools, St. Jean, is recommended for closure. St. Jean has an enrollment percentage of only 34. Combined with the poor quality of the facilities, St. Jean will almost definitely be closed.
Colonel Gray’s decline contrasts sharply with the Charlottetown Rural family of school’s growth, with each of their seven schools expected to increase in enrolment in the future. Due to this disparity of enrollments in the same geographic area, the PEI Public Schools Branch recommended merging the two families of schools to make appropriate rezoning decisions to distribute student enrolment evenly. This should work to prevent severe overpopulation and fill underpopulated schools as well.
School Rezoning provides many benefits to students and taxpayers. Rezoning more students to attend larger, centralized schools allows for students to interact with a more diverse student body with pupils from outside of their native communities and cultures. More centralized schools can absorb the funding of smaller schools to offer more equipment and student resources in addition to employing more teachers. Closing schools with very low occupancy rates eliminate heating, janitorial, electrical, utility and other expenses, saving money for the department and taxpayers.