PEI School Closures and Rezoning What are the fiscal repercussions of school closures and rezoning on PEI?

Introduction

On January 10th, 2017, the PEI Public Schools Branch announced plans to correct the current issue of overpopulated and underpopulated schools across Prince Edward Island. The committee submitted plans which advised for comprehensive school district rezoning, as well as the closure of five elementary schools: Georgetown Elementary, Belfast Consolidated, St. Jean Elementary, St. Louis Elementary and Bloomfield Elementary. These provincial government plans resulted in widespread debate and fierce opposition by individual parents and community members who feel as though the provincial government is unfairly targeting their rural communities. Public demonstrations, petitions, and gatherings were organized to raise support for keeping affected schools open. Those who oppose the school closures point out fears of a loss of a sense of community and unacceptable travel times as justification to keep open the schools. Meanwhile, supporters of the government’s plans believe they are being fiscally responsible and making long term plans that focus on sustainability. This project is designed to examine the reasons behind the closures, whether there is evidence to support its’ implementation and overall, to answer what are the fiscal repercussions of school rezoning and closures on Prince Edward Island? Through evidence and statistics shown in this project, it should be clear that the issue of school closures and rezoning on Prince Edward Island should strongly consider the best interest of taxpayers. As all Islanders fund the provincial education system, it is government’s responsibility to ensure that education is provided in the most efficient and cost-effective manner, while not sacrificing student education quality. This project will also examine the community responses and repercussions while acknowledging the difficulty of measuring these issues quantitatively.

By looking across fiscal, demographic, and travel implications, it becomes apparent that a government response with sustainability in mind is necessary to maintain reasonable school enrolment in the future.

Demographic Considerations

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.

Resource Relocation

One of the English Language School Boards policies is to “maximize the use of available resources,” which is stated in 1.1(C). The ELSB feels that school closures will allow for maximization of resources to the best of their abilities. Also, stated in the ELSB policy 4.2(B) was that there are currently schools that are having difficulty providing students with the equitable access to appropriate educational programs of services.

With the closure of the small, underpopulated schools on PEI, larger schools will receive more resources such as teachers, books, gym equipment, etc. Currently, the highly populated urban schools are struggling with a lack of space, a lack staff, a lack resource materials, and a lack of specialized programs because small rural schools have been using the needed money to run their schools. If the small school close as mentioned above in 4.2(B) our overpopulated schools will get the much-needed support they have been lacking.

The average cost per student across the Island over the past two years was $8,003.44, while underpopulated schools such as Georgetown Elementary who are operating at a 28% capacity have costs per student of $17,722.26 that more than double the islands average. “There are some costs that are basically fixed in some manner, [for example] heating the building. Those types of costs don't have a lot of variabilities based on how many students you have in the building,” said John Cummings.

Financial information is just one of the factors in the school review process, but it is evident from the figures given above that students in highly populated schools are suffering because underpopulated schools are using up a significant amount more funds to educate their students. With the closure of these underpopulated schools, it will allow the English Language School Board meet their 1.1 (C) policy as stated above.

Transportation Considerations

One concept of the school closures is to improve utilization of the already underused transportation system. Students transportation to and from school will be affected by the recommended school closures, but the benefits severely outweigh the drawbacks. In most cases students travel time will be reduced, but there are a few cases where the travel time will increase for a small number of students. “The kids will still have an education getting bused to a new school,” stated a CBC interviewee. “Kids are resilient new friends will be made. Don’t worry about it.”

With the closure of underutilized schools, fewer buses will need to be used which saves taxpayers money. It cuts back on wages, on gas, on insurance, and on maintenance of the buses. Bus drivers on PEI earn an average of $45,405 per year and can range as high as $53,767. Each year these bus drivers travel an average of 19,200 kilometers, which takes a whopping 6,489 liters of diesel fuel. A fuel bill totaling $7,527 per year for an average bus at today’s prices. A minimum of $5 million liability is required which can cost anywhere from $3,360 to $6,000 per year.

Not only will the school closures and rezoning give us an improved transportation system, but it will save taxpayers an average of $57,612 per bus, per year. This savings can be put directly back towards the education of PEI children and ensure a bright future for all of them.

Repurposing Capital Assets

Many communities are worried that their communities will be affected. I found this statement made by a parent in a recent CBC article, “My heart is broken, we need our school. Belfast needs the school to keep our community together.”

School losses could be turned into gains, says the St. Peter’s Bay community. With the recent school closure in St. Peter’s they decided to turn their old school into a community complex, which has worked tremendously because the building is now at full capacity. It has been a strong boost to the economy over the past four years says many residents of the community. The community center now has a fully stocked Library, Child Care Services, Church services, as well as several community groups.

Taxpayers also save money by shutting the schools down, but it also earns more money for other provincial services because the schools which are closed are sold to private companies.

Educational Factors

It is important to address the overcrowding situations at some elementary and intermediate schools in Charlottetown and Stratford area. But declining enrollment in the rural area has created some schools that are underutilized. The population migration has created schools that are overcrowded. It is challenging for overcrowded schools are challenged in delivering curriculum, programs, and services due to large class sizes. We found the statistics from Public School Branch shows the relationship between numbers of students and teachers.

School Configuration Lowest Highest Difference (Lowest, Highest, Difference)

Student/Teacher Ratio range (K-3, 4-6, K-6 schools) 10.09, 17.28, 7.19

Student/Teacher Ratio range (K-8, K-9 schools) 7.96, 13.76, 5.80

Student/Teacher Ratio range (7-9 schools) 12.58, 16.30, 3.72

Student/Teacher Ratio range (7-12, 9-12, 10-12 schools) 9.16, 17.39, 8.23

The table above identifies lowest and highest student-teacher ratios among schools of similar grade configurations. Underutilized schools with low ratios generally have smaller class sizes. While it will be impossible to have equal ratios across all schools, school change recommendations will attempt to redistribute students so there is a better balance of school utilization and allow the PSB to staff schools. By comparing the highest ratio and lowest ration of the 7-12 schools from 9.2 to 17.4, the difference is huge which is 8.2. It indicates the student number of some underutilized schools only 9 times the number of the teacher.

Facility Upgrades

Some old facility could become an issue because most schools were built 40 years ago. It is necessary to maintain a school by using the limited budget. Effective school maintenance ensures the health and safety of children and makes great performance. As PEI’s school buildings age, Islanders are facing the challenge of maintaining school facilities at a high standard. The standard ensures the needs of 21st-century teaching and learning. School facilities maintenance focus on more than just resource management. It is also providing clean and safe environments for children that are appropriate for studying. The classroom with broken windows doesn't foster active student learning. For example, St. Jean currently has the lowest utilization in the Charlottetown area. And other elementary schools nearby will have the capacity to accommodate St. Jean students. Because St. Jean was established in 1962. They don’t have energy management system, biomass heating system or municipal energy system. To ensure the school would remain in good condition, keep children healthy and safe, the roof needs to be replaced, boiler needs to be upgraded, and oil tank needs to be replaced.

Conclusion

Wade MacLauchlan and the provincial Liberals have a challenging decision to make. Closing the selected schools would indeed invoke strong emotional reactions from members of the affected community. However, refusing to close any schools in the face of indisputable statistical evidence would be a very short-sighted and irresponsible decision. It is very clear that rural populations are declining, leading to continually lower elementary school enrollment figures. Unless Premier MacLauchlan has a plan to somehow bring more young families to rural communities such as Belfast and Georgetown, there is no conceivable way that these schools can reach even half of their expected enrollment. Not only does this negatively affect the students who attend a sparsely populated school, but it is also a serious drain on taxpayers who fund redundant facilities that need not be open. PEI already has a severe deficit problem due to reckless spending by the Liberals; such as exceeding the 2016-2017 provincial deficit projection of $9.6 million by an 86% inflation to an expected amount of $17.9 million. Making a strategic long-term education plan that focuses on sustainability would go a long way in renewing faith in the fiscal responsibility of this government. If not, Islanders will, unfortunately, have to look forward to soon addressing this problem again, as government inaction will do nothing to solve the root issue, and the problem will persist into the future.

References

• English Language School Board. "Board Governance Policy." Public Schools Branch (2016): 1-11. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

• Mair, Karen. "P.E.I. school closure recommendations strike a nerve: Your comments." CBCNews. CBC, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

• Goodwin, Natalia. "School loss could be turned into a gain, says one P.E.I. community." CBCNews. CBC, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-schools-st-peter-s-bay-1.3933405>.

• "School Bus Driver Salary in Prince Edward Island, Canada." Salary Experts. Ed. ERI Economic Research Institute, Inc. ERI Economic Research Institute, Inc., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <https://www.salaryexpert.com/salary/job/school-bus-driver/canada/prince-edward-island>.

• Luff, Jim. "What You Need To Know When You Get A Bus." Limousine, Charter, & Tour. Limousine, Charter & Tour., 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 3 Apr. 2017. <http://www.lctmag.com/vehicles/article/40724/what-you-need-to-know-when-you-get-a-bus?page=3>.

• "What is the gas mileage of a school bus?" Reference. Ed. IAC Publishing. IAC Publishing, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <https://www.reference.com/vehicles/gas-mileage-school-bus-f01a762113167099>.

• Faller, Patrick. "'Cost per student' at underutilized schools a factor in school review." CBCNews. CBC/Radio-Canada., 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/student-costs-school-review-1.3834763>.

• Yarr, Kevin. "Projected P.E.I. Deficit Almost Doubles." CBCNews. CBC/Radio Canada, 15 Mar. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

• Fraser, Sara. "5 School Closures Recommended in P.E.I. Report on Public Schools."CBCNews. CBC/Radio Canada, 11 Jan. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

• Curley, Kevin. "Advocates Advise Threatened PEI Schools to Seek Moratorium on Closures."Peicanada.com. Eastern Graphic, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

• Stewart, Dave. "Parents Devastated to Learn Five Island Schools Recommended for Closure."The Guardian. N.p., 10 Jan. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

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