JPII, the Charter, and entitlement

Even though preparations to move staff and students from John Paul II High School to Pontiac High are well under way, The Equity reports today on a last-ditch effort by opponents of the school’s closure: they’re teaming up with the Regional Association of West Quebecers (the local English rights group) to seek an emergency court injunction to prevent the school board from closing the school — on the grounds that closing the school violates their Charter rights to an English-language education!

As I understand things, they argue that the funding formula — the same for English schools as French — is discriminatory (presumably because smaller populations need higher per capita funding), so while they argue that quixotic case before the courts, they want JPII to remain open. Not that there’s much of a direct connection between “the funding formula is unfair” and “this school’s closure must be stopped immediately,” but there you have it: it’s a marriage of convenience between the Save Our School Committee and RAWQ, using each other’s issues to further their own.

In a nutshell, this is just nutty. The argument is not only specious, it’s risible: if it actually worked, it would destroy the entire public education system.

First, let’s deal with the question of providing an English-language education where numbers warrant. The 80 or so kids are being transferred to Pontiac High, 20 minutes and 21 km away — which, last I checked, was still an English-language school. As I see it, the Charter requirement is being met. But the argument, inasmuch as I can figure it out, is that to them the “where” in “where numbers warrant” means in Campbell’s Bay.

That’s a crazy reading of “where numbers warrant.” In many places, a tiny school is the only option, but there’s a bigger school just down the road from Campbell’s Bay — how does that not count? (Especially since the francophone population of this county — 45 per cent — makes do with only one high school, in Fort Coulonge, to which all the French kids must be bussed.)

Think of the precedent that would be set if they win this point. If Campbell’s Bay has an absolute right to an English high school, why doesn’t Bryson or Otter Lake — or Fort Coulonge? What is the minimum number of students to warrant a high school? They think it’s less than 80. Is it 20? Ten? Five? And what about the French language schools? How come they don’t get more than one school? How many high schools should a county with only 15,000 people have?

We’ll be back to one-room schools, none with enough resources to educate kids properly.

I’m reminded of something mayoral candidate Natalie Pollock said during a Winnipeg municipal election in the mid-nineties: she was going to save the Winnipeg Jets (i.e., prevent them from leaving town, which they did shortly thereafter) by invoking the Charter — regional equalization, she said, meant that small markets had a right to keep their NHL franchises. Yes, it’s silly — by that logic every town would be entitled to an NHL team — but it speaks to the widespread faith in the Charter: that people know they have rights, even if they’re not real clear on what they are, or how they work.

Those fighting JPII’s closure are proceeding from a profound sense of entitlement: it has not occurred to them what would happen if everyone else was similarly entitled. Extra funds, special treatment, exceptions to the rule — these have been their arguments throughout the consultation process.

Now let’s look at another precedent this would set. If a school board’s decision to close a school is subject to a Charter challenge simply because the funding formula is unconstitutional (on the basis that low funding forces the closure), then any school board decision can be similarly challenged, because every decision would be in the context of its funding. On a practical level, the school system would descend into anarchy. Is that something a judge is likely to unleash?

On a local level, this would generate six kinds of chaos as well, as plans to move staff and students are torn up and everyone starts over. (“Memo to staff: Cancel your vacations.”)

I’m upset that RAWQ would inflict that kind of chaos to make their point: however important that point is, they’re making hay on our backs. I’m especially annoyed because I don’t think they have a chance, and I think they know that. This is about RAWQ drawing attention to the issue, and using us as fodder in the process, rather than actually succeeding in getting the injunction. Our chains, in other words, are being yanked.

Even if their case has merit in the abstract, I just can’t see a judge overturning the decision of a democratically elected school board over this (much less destroy school boards’ authority in general). The closing of a single high school, whatever you think about it, is just not an emergency, unless you’re in hysterics over the issue (which, unfortunately, the people behind Save Our School are). Nor is it even that big of a deal. If they’re arguing the funding issue, JPII’s closure is only a symptom; if they’re arguing the closure, the court has no business interfering. It’s a last-ditch effort, pure and simple — a “hail Mary” pass — and it’s almost certain to fail.

Problem is, I’m worried that it might not.

Funny how it’s still not about the kids getting an education, isn’t it?