An extraordinary council sitting held in the Lääneranna Rural Municipality in Western Estonia has not agreed on a compromise on the fate of a small elementary school, leaving parents and children hanging high as to what happens after today, September 1, traditionally the first day of school in Estonia.
The main decision related to whether the school in question, the Metsküla elementary school in the Lääne County village of the same name, would continue to be municipality-run for one more academic year. Parents and local residents fall on both sides of the issue, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported.
Metsküla school had 21 pupils attending through the 2022-2023 academic year.
Opposition deputies on Lääneranna rural municipality's council had wanted to find compromises to keep the Metsküla school open, while leaving the Virtsu school, also in Lääne County, a six-grade facility.
However, the council upheld a municipal government decision to close the Metsküla school, made in spring.
The development attracted much media attention earlier in summer, not least when the Metsküla school was recognized as school of the year.
As of Thursday afternoon, a majority of the council had not yet reached an agreement on compromises, opposition deputy Raul Oberschneider (Isamaa) told ERR.
He said: "Metsküla and Virtsu school have presented their compromise proposals to the members of the council and the chairman of the council, and over the past two weeks, there has been brisk clarification work."
"An extraordinary session has been called for tonight at half past five, where we will discuss the compromise proposals. If a common understanding is found among the majority of the council members, then an amendment to the council's decision to close schools in March, and a decision will be introduced that as a municipal school Metsküla school will cease operations in August 2024, and Virtsu school will continue as a six-grade school instead of a four-grade school, as was decided in March," Oberschneider went on.
This decision is key for the children of Metsküla Primary School, as they will be without a school place as of today, Friday, the first day of school.
Oberschneider added that parents of the schoolchildren have adopted a "wait-and-see attitude," and have not yet enrolled their children at another school, though a positive decision at council level would have assuaged concerns about being able to go back to school on Monday (September 1, whatever day of the week it falls on, is mostly taken up by formalities such as a school assembly, before classes proper start – ed.).
The relevant paperwork could then be arranged "within two weeks," Oberschneider said.
Some schoolchildren at Virtsu who would be left without a place if the school was reduced in size down to four grades have begun the process of transferring to the Muhu school, he added.
Meanwhile Council Chair Armand Reinmaa told AK that the municipality still does not have sufficient clarity about the support measure for small schools as developed by the Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200).
There is also a legal dispute over the fate of both schools, though the court has canceled the legal protection in respect of the schools, he added.
One parent, who is also a teacher at the Metsküla school, Maris Altmann, told AK that: "Many people have not chosen a new school yet in the hope that this decision will be reversed today. I can't immediately answer what the parents are doing today, though I know that tomorrow (ie. today, Friday – ed.) we will still have a ceremony, though probably not on such a happy note as we would have hoped."
The Lääneranna municipal council decided to reduced the local school network at a session on March 24. To achieve this, a school at Lõpe will also close, in addition to the Metsküla school, while the 7th-9th grades will be removed from Koonga and Varbla schools, from the fall of 2024.
As noted the Virtsu school would get a stay of execution, but would be converted into a four-grade primary school from the start of this academic year.
Raul Oberschneider said it is crucial for the Metsküla school to go on for one more year with municipal status, before becoming a private school, which is one current plan, as a year's sabbatical may end up with no pupils – the current figure is only 21, across four grades, – when the school does reopen.
Funds needed to continue the school are available in the municipal budget, he added.
Lääneranna Municipal Mayor Ingvar Saare told AK that he too was not sure what the fate of the schools would be in the aftermath of Thursday's extraordinary session. "No member of the council has submitted any specific draft for the extraordinary session," he said.
"Local life is organized by the council, so the municipal government will also find out tonight in which direction we have to organize this educational network, whether the March decision will continue to be valid, or there will be some kind of change," Saare said.
Minister of Education Kristina Kallas has promised to stand behind small schools and provide them with additional funding, but the current situation is exactly the same as it has been until now, he added.
"As I have said before, it is difficult to build a municipality's education network based on press releases," he added.
Moreover, concrete steps have not been taken in the direction of converting the school to a private facility, he added.
Meanwhile, over 50 parents and local residents in Lihula actually called for the Mestküla school to close, saying in a statement to the municipal government that they will go to court in the matter if the school remains open, local daily Lääne Elu wrote on Thursday (link in Estonian).
According to the signatories, keeping schools open would not permit the savings they say are needed in the local education network.
On the other hand, other parents and residents are protesting against the closure, and indeed threatening a court action should that go ahead.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel, Juhan Hepner
Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'