A long-running dispute over the closure of a small rural elementary school in Western Estonia can be resolved with consensus between local government and school staff and the parents of affected pupils, a court has said, not for the first time.
The Metsküla elementary school (Metsküla algkool) in Lääneranna Rural Municipality, Pärnu County, has been the focus of much media attention – ERR awarded it the school of the year award at the end of the academic year in early June – after news that its closure would leave its couple of dozen pupils with nowhere to go.
So far and since the 2023-2024 academic year started, many pupils have been home-schooled, by the school's former staff on an informal basis, parents proposed founding a private school to replace it, and even President Alar Karis has been sucked into the controversy.
The first-tier Tallinn Administrative Court provided the parties to the Metsküla elementary school case the opportunity to submit proposals by December 7; if agreement is not reached, the trial will proceed via a written procedure
Administrative Court Judge Janek Laidvee said: "Metsküla school pupils have been assigned to lists of active municipal schools," regarding the schooling of those pupils affected by the closures.
"Whether the municipality's means of functioning was justified is a separate issue; the issue of fulfilling the school obligation has, however, been resolved. This, in turn, makes it viable to resolve issues of organizing home schooling, etc.," Judge Laidvee went on.
The court judge added that both parties the dispute, ie. Lääneranna Rural Municipality and the currently closed Metsküla elementary school have recognized the need to continue efforts to reach consensus.
The court's proposal to find a compromise is based on a rational recognition that the financial resources spent on litigation might better be pressed into use to support children's education, especially in a situation where the applicants have chosen the path of establishing a private school, while the court decision only serves to bring clarity to whether the relevant authority had the right to close the Metsküla municipal school.
Judge Laidvee concedes that the compromise may have to cover various issues, including those related to the school building, as well as the organization of continued home schooling through to the next academic year from September 2024.
Any conditions to be inserted into the requested compromise should follow specifically formulated proposals, the judge added.
Judge Laidvee had previously told ERR that legal clarity is needed regarding de facto learning at Mesküla School, as this does not fit into the existing legal framework.
The Lääneranna Municipality Council on March 24 voted in favor of dialing back the network of local schools. Based on this decision, the Metsküla school, along with another school at Lõpe, will be closed. Additionally, grades 7-9 will be removed from Koonga and Varbla schools, while the Virtsu School, in the village of the same name – jumping off point for ferries to Saaremaa - will be transformed into a four-grade elementary school.
Tallinn Administrative Court revoked the school's preliminary legal protection in June, meaning that the municipality's March decision of closing the school effective this fall remains in place.
Parents of pupils plus the school itself sued the municipality; the administrative court ordered a grace period in late September during which the compromise noted above needed to be sought. The court granted a single extension of the period.
Editor: Kristina Alunurm, Andrew Whyte