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Peter Espeut | Expropriating church schools

Published:Friday | July 15, 2016 | 7:00 AM

A Facebook post by Minister of Education Ruel Reid that went the rounds last weekend has caused some disquiet in church circles. In the Facebook post, the minister issued a warning and a threat.

The warning: "Now that High Schools have been given their new funding allocations, I am warning that I will be taking drastic sanctions against School Boards that do not ensure that school administrators comply with the new government-funding policy. Schools by nature must be moral and ethical standard-bearers. They must follow guidelines as they expect students and parents to observe school rules."

Now the threat: "The Minister reserves the right, therefore, to take over schools that continue to breach policy."

The minister is stating that his ministerial guidelines are absolute and must be obeyed. Is this true? What immense power does the minister claim for himself! And over half-baked, poorly thought-out policies!

In early 1976, I visited Guyana for the first time (teaching church music), and while there, I toured St Stanislaus College (run, like our St George's College, by the Jesuits) and St Rose's High School (run by the Ursuline Sisters). Later that year, the repressive Forbes Burnham regime expropriated all the church schools in the country (including St Stanislaus and St Rose's), putting them under direct government management.

Then followed years of church-state antagonism, including the persecution of clergymen, and attacks upon press freedom. Fr Bernard Darke, SJ, mathematics teacher at St Stanislaus, was murdered while taking photographs for the Catholic Standard newspaper, which took a strong anti-corruption posture. It got to the point where the Catholic Standard had to be printed overseas and shipped in each week.

 

Take over

 

These memories are fresh in my mind as I read the threat coming directly from the hand of the minister of education to "take over schools" that continue to breach his policies.

Jamaican governments (including the colonial government) have built few top-quality high schools and have shown little interest in doing so. Almost all were built and operated by trusts and various denominations, charging fees payable by the parents. Yet there was a tremendous shortage of high-school places, especially for children of the poor.

As a result of the 1943 Kandel Committee Report, the Government decided to offer subventions (grants-in-aid) to trust and church schools and to incorporate them into the government system. The churches and trusts would continue to own and operate their schools, but would cede some of their power over their schools to the Government.

This arrangement, negotiated many decades ago, was mutually beneficial - maybe all parties would have described it as a win-win situation. Without spending hundreds of millions to construct high schools, the Government could send worthy students to already existing top-quality schools. The Church kept ownership of its schools, and since the Government approved their recommendations for school board members and principal staff, they retained control of their schools and could run them as religious institutions.

 

Partnership

 

But there are signs that this partnership arrangement is coming apart at the seams. The government grants-in-aid of school operations were never enough to offer top-quality education, requiring school owners to raise funds to make up the difference. At the same time, the Government wants more control over church and trust schools and their finances.

A few years ago, the ministry issued a directive that any funds raised in the name of the school belonged to the Government. This, of course, is nonsense! The schools do not belong to the Government, and the 'name of the school' inheres in the church or trust and not the Government.

The threat by the minister of education to "take over schools" that continue to breach his policies must be taken seriously. Under the Education Act 1965, the minister can dismiss the school board recommended by the church or trust and appoint his own people. He can also appoint his own principal - and it would all be quite legal. The Government has enacted laws enabling it to expropriate the property upon which the school is built - all quite legally. The legal framework for a Guyana-like takeover of church schools is in place.

I invite the churches and trusts that own and operate schools to revisit the arrangements under which they partner with the Government. Over the years, various administrations have sought to erode the legitimate authority churches and trusts have over their schools by encroaching on that authority.

The draft of the proposed new Education Act and Code of Regulations must be studied carefully to ensure that the rights of the churches and trusts which own and operate schools are respected and preserved.

• Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.