Where in the world can a head of state visit a school which does not exist? In Estonia – as President Alar Karis demonstrated by doing just that on Monday, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported.
The presidential visit, to the Metsküla school, Lääneranna Rural Municipality, Lääne County, was interesting both in terms of the light it shed on the school's plight, and that of smaller schools nationwide, and the relationship between the head of state's role and powers in relation to regional politics.
As reported by ERR News, Lääneranna Rural Municipality, Lääne County, closed the Metsküla school, an elementary school with around two dozen pupils enrolled.
Parents of the affected pupils have continued to pursue a legal dispute on the matter and, nearly two-and-a-half months after the academic year began, the children have been taught on an informal basis by the former staff of the school.
For his part, the president noted that he cannot instruct the municipality what to do, "since am not responsible for this assessment, and I do not finance this school. The decision is primarily down to the municipality, though as of today I do see possibilities for the school to continue, not it being closed down so abruptly. But once again, this is a decision for the municipal leaders," the president told AK.
This does not mean that the head of state is blasé about the situation, quite the reverse, as his words while visiting the school, republished by the Office of the President, make clear.
He said: "Above all, I am concerned about the Metsküla elementary school children, hence my visit here. This stand-off being prolonged will tear the community apart."
"A transformation with the Estonian schools network is inevitable, but this can only be successful when the community forms a partner to local government, and is not excluded. Plus one cannot forget that all schools are different; there is no single yardstick."
"The Metsküla case casts all the schools within the Lääneranna municipality in a bad light, including the Lihula high school, and the death knell was placed on the Metsküla school, by the municipality authority. Compromise must be found. I cannot say whether the optimal solution is to continue with the existing elementary school, or whether it lies in creating a private school ... the community and the municipal government have to agree on that," the head of state went on.
Lihula High School also lies within Lääneranna Rural Municipality's jurisdiction. A planned new building cannot be constructed without the reorganization of the school network, the municipality says, a decision upheld by the second-tier Tallinn Circuit Court in June.
The Metsküla tale reveals a wider concern in Estonia also, the head of state said.
"First, the fate of small schools, where the first priority must of course be a strong education, but also the experience of communication with peers and adults and the possibility of interest education."
"Second, considering, or not considering the community, interaction between local people and municipal halls or city governments," the president continued, adding a third aspect as "recognizing positive differences and supporting these."
President Karis went on to say that the current situation raises the question of the financial capacity of municipalities to cope with all things they are tasked with.
"Furthermore, there are also tensions within local governments, where the interests of one region conflict with others, and the ensuing confrontations drive the community down a deep ditch," he added.
"This also serves to draw attention to the interlocking of the situation with individual thoughts and actions, and to a defiant unwillingness to find a compromise after insults and offenses," he continued.
The president met with former school director Pille Kaisel, teachers and parents while in Metsküla.
He is set to meet with Lääneranna municipality leaders at Kadriorg, the presidential seat in Tallinn, today, Tuesday, the president's office says.
AK reported that if the current litigation continues, the question will arise about those children currently, informally studying for grade five, and their progress toward grade six, the start of Põhikool (basic school, ie. junior high).
Pille Kaisel said that this would not be an issue, however.
"Teachers can assess what level the children are. This has also happened before, that a child moved up two grades at once, not just the one, so I don't really see a problem here," Kaisel said.
One parent, Maris Altmann, told AK that around €90,000 in donations to the Metsküla community had been amassed since the spring, to cover the costs of going to court and now of schooling itself.
No compromise has been found with the municipality to continue as a municipal school, neither in the long term nor until such time as the parents are able to establish a private school there, Altmann said.
Altmann added that a state support measure for rural schools is due from the New Year.
Lääneranna Municipal Mayor Ingvar Saare has previously said this is a temporary measure and would not resolve the problems of the municipality's school network in the longer term.
Another school in the municipality, at Lõpe, closed in fall this year, while three other schools, Virtsu, Varbla and Koonga were reorganized into four-grade (Virtsu) and six-grade schools.
The Metsküla school was named 2023 school of the year, leading to an ETV morning broadcast from the school itself.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera,' reporter Juhan Hepner; Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia