Lääneranna Municipality's plan to dial back the local schools network was delivered a setback recently when the court gave the small Metsküla and Lõpe schools to be closed and the Virtsu School, which is to have just four grades, preliminary legal protection. The municipality has now challenged the latter ruling and plans to do the same for the other schools.
The Lääneranna Municipality Council decided on March 24 to close the Metsküla and Lõpe schools from this fall, leave just four grades at the Virtsu School this year and six grades at the Varbla and Koonga schools from 2024. This prompted local parents to turn to the Tallinn Administrative Court where Lõpe, Virtsu and Metsküla schools were given preliminary legal protection.
Lääneranna Municipality Mayor Ingvar Saare told ERR that the local government has challenged Virtsu School's preliminary legal protection and plans to do the same for the Lõpe and Metsküla schools. The municipality has 15 days from the legal protection decision to do this.
"Regarding Lõpe School, the court has highlighted transport as one of the main concerns, and it is possible they'll lift preliminary legal protection if we can show the court that we can handle student transport," Saare said.
Anneli Vilu, spokesperson for the Tallinn Administrative and Circuit Court, said that the court processed the Virtsu School's legal protection request on May 29 and the sides have until this Friday to lodge challenges after which the court will make its decision.
"Challenges of preliminary legal protection will be processed promptly, even though there is no official deadline for this," Vilu said, adding that it will likely take a few weeks.
Ingvar Saare said that while it is not the municipality's aim to go to court, decisions regarding the schools network should have been made sooner and the closures have been debated for at least three years, which is why the municipality does not agree to criticism of hurrying.
"I believe these decisions would have landed in court sooner or later. Communities have been relatively resolute in this matter," the municipality mayor said.
He added that small schools are a matter of approach, because if Estonia wants exceptions, it will need to find the money to maintain specific schools. But Saare does not consider this to be the most sensible way of organizing the education network.
One way to keep the schools open is making them private, which proposal Lääneranna Municipality has made to the Metsküla community. It is prepared to surrender the school's buildings. This would ensure continued support from the local government.
"However, parents who have been in touch with the municipality have not considered this a suitable option and have emphasized that the school should be municipal."
He added that while nearness to home is considered an important aspect of small schools, just seven students of Metsküla School live nearer to it, while 14 students live closer to the larger Lihula and Kõmsi schools.
"There must be a reason why kids are going to Metsküla instead of Lihula. The fact of the matter is that funding for Lihula High School is also used to maintain Metsküla and other small schools, which is not fair to the former," the municipality mayor said.
Municipality's letter causes resentment
Virtsu and Lõpe parents were recently angered by a letter they received from the local government asking them where their kids would be going to school this fall. Sworn lawyer Allar Jõks, representing Virtsu School, said this could be interpreted as the municipality putting pressure on parents.
Jõks said that the court's May 12 judgment to suspend the local government's decision to cut the number of grades at the school to four means that the municipality cannot take any steps that might lead to the school closing.
"Lääneranna Municipality has asked parents where they plan to take their kids who currently go to Virtsu School from September 1 after preliminary legal protection was granted. One doesn't have to be a genius to understand this constitutes a violation of preliminary legal protection."
The municipality's actions amount to putting pressure on parents or intimidating them into looking for a new school to help the local governments achieve its goal of closing the school, Jõks suggested.
"While they can get away with it, it's not a nice thing to do," he said. "The local government has endless resources for meeting the parents in court. Small wonder then that it doesn't have the money to maintain schools if it spends it on fighting the community in court," Jõks said.
The lawyer has formally warned Lääneranna Municipality that he will seek a fine if it does not stop violating the conditions of preliminary legal protection. The maximum fine is €32,000.
Ingvar Saare said that the parents received the letter before preliminary legal protection was ordered. The court's press representative confirmed that the letter was sent before legal protection entered into force and is in no way binding for parents.
Saare added that the notice sent to Virtsu School parents was not meant to put pressure on people and that the municipality sent the parents an explanation letter after it was contacted by Jõks. The municipality mayor said the local government simply wanted to know the parents' preferred alternative should preliminary legal protection fail.
Allar Jõks suggested that it is unlikely the municipality's challenge of preliminary legal protection will be upheld as the court's ruling was sound in its reasoning. However, should it happen, the schools' reorganization will continue as planned and the Virtsu School will continue with just four grades from September 1.
Representatives of the Koonga and Varbla schools have also turned to court but are not seeking preliminary legal protection as the decision to leave just six grades at both schools is not set to enter into force before next year.
Editor: Marcus Turovski