A rural challenge: where's my school gone?

It’s that time of the year again.  Back to school.  But for some rural families, whether there is acutally a school to go to is a hot topic.

Should a rural school with a falling role be allowed to keep operating?  Or could the money allocated to that school be better spent elsewhere? And how can a decision to close a school be challenged?

Rural schools are an important part of the community, but often fall victim to closures when roll numbers drop, and teacher resources need to be allocated.  A balance often needs to be achieved between school funding decisions, and need the need to meet education needs.

We saw this after the Canterbury earthquakes, when schools were closed and amalgamated by the Ministry of Education, after community populations fell when families relocated.

The final decision to close a school must be made by the Minister of Education, after a recommendation from that school’s board of trustees.

So what happens when your school might be facing closure?  Under the Education Act, School Boards of Trustees have broad decision making powers about everything from setting the schools’ rules, to budget expenditure, or whether to apply to the Ministry of Education for voluntary closure, because it might no longer be educationally viable to continue to operate the school.  It is difficult to challenge these decisions. 

Any decision to seek voluntary closure must be carefully made, and only after all alternatives are fully considered.

The Minister of Education has the final say, but only after the decision making requirements under the Education Act have been completed, including consulting with the school’s Board of Trustees, as well as the Boards from other Schools that might also be affected by the decision.  That might include other local schools that might take on the students from the closed school.

After consultation, the Minister can then make a decision to either close the school, or not support the Board’s recommendation for voluntary closure.  If the Minister decides to close the school, that decision is final, but as with all administrative decisions under the Education Act, that decision may be subject to challenge through the Courts, in a process called judicial review, on the grounds that the correct decision making process was not followed, or otherwise unreasonably made.

Judicial review is a costly and expensive process, and should only be taken as a last resort.   Affected families should in the first instance keep in contact with the school Board, and the Ministry of Education to ensure that their views and concerns are heard. 

Sometimes it will just not be viable to continue to keep a school open.  What is important is that the right decision is made, making sure the children’s education requirements are met.

The content of this document is necessarily general and readers should seek specific advice on particular matters and not rely solely on this document. 

If you would like more information on any of the topics in this document, please contact your usual Auld Brewer Mazengarb & McEwen adviser. 

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Philip McCarthy