16 June 2020

SCC decision complicates school budgets for fall 2020 #nlpoli

The provincial government’s budget problems, the amount it spends on education, and its plans for the fall living with COVID-19 just got a whole lot more complicated thanks to the Supreme Court of Canada decision on Friday in a case involving minority-language schools.

Francophone Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are constitutionally entitled to educate their children in their own language at public expense if they have as few as one student in a community.

In its decision in Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie‑Britannique v British Columbia (2020 SCC 13), a majority of Supreme Court of Canada judges ruled on Friday that, in general,  minority-language students should get their own school if the government gave one to the same number of majority-language speakers somewhere in the province.  The Court said that this approach would promote fairness and make sure public funds are spent wisely.

The Court said that minority language rights are protected in the constitution because schools help preserve the language and culture of official-language minorities.  The majority determined that all children deserve the same opportunities as well as the same quality and experience at school. The Court said that going to a small school should not mean students get a worse education.

What that means for Newfoundland and Labrador is that the threshold for providing a francophone school in the province is now the smallest school size in the English-language system.  A quick check of school statistics shows that Newfoundland and Labrador currently has schools with four or fewer students and some that appear to have only one student enrolled in 2019-2020.  In 2018, the English school district voted against closing very small schools despite the provincial government’s severe financial problems.

While some people will be quick to say that this puts the province in a hard spot, the reality is that the consistently irresponsible financial decisions of successive governments and the current school board have created an untenable situation for the province’s English schools anyway.  Now the Supreme Court decision has brought home the need to provide proper education to all students in the province, within the government’s considerable means, something neither the government nor the current gaggle of school trustees has been willing to do.

Until now, school trustees and other politicians have been living in the fool’s paradise of unending deficits. School board trustee Peter Whittle is typical of the politicians who have refused to make necessary decisions despite knowing the crushing weight of the provincial government’s mounting deficit and massive annual deficits.

He told CBC in 2018 that he struggled with trying “to find the finances in this and how it works at a time we're having so much difficulty in the province when it comes to funding anything."  Whittle voted to keep a school open with just four students in it. Trustees closed a school whose enrolment fell in half, from nine students to four. It was still open in 2020. The only school they voted to close had no students at all and had not had any for several years. The community resettled last year.