Schools offer perks with caution

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Schools offer perks with caution

As schools across Korean suburbs grapple with a shrinking number of students and the consequential risk of shutting down, one modest elementary school in the rural town of Hamyang County, South Gyeongsang, has recently come up with an idea to entice more students and their parents by offering perks - several that relate to parents’ fears about living outside major cities.

The school vowed to grant free language programs every year to the students, including opportunities to study abroad. Housing support was also mentioned, as well as jobs in the local community for the new students’ parents.

Seoha Elementary School, located in the outskirts of Mount Deokyu, opened in 1931 and currently has only 14 students, four of whom are in their last, sixth grade of elementary school, meaning they’ll graduate next February to go onto middle school. If the school fails to attract more students by then, it could shut down for good.

Seoha Elementary School is only one among a handful of Korean schools in the countryside these days that is providing or planning to provide a package of benefits to students and their parents who are willing to settle in their tiny towns, despite the risk of lagging behind in the nation’s cut-throat educational competition.

For decades, rural towns have seen an exodus of young people who move to the city to find better employment opportunities and expose their children to a more competitive education system. Korea’s notoriously low birth rate has also taken a toll on the dwindling number of students nationwide, with schools in rural areas the hardest hit.

Yet as more schools like Seoha lay out appealing promises, the National Election Commission (NEC), a government agency that’s in charge of managing elections for public offices, warn they could violate the Public Official Election Act by offering goods to constituencies.

Such was the case with Asan Elementary School in Hwasun County, South Jeolla. The school made news headlines last month when it announced that it would provide free housing for two families who will move into the town and send their kids to the school. A school official at the time said she was receiving calls from as far away as Canada.

Yet the tempting offer didn’t last long, and the school is now facing the risk of entirely scrapping the suggestion or making serious changes to it, like offering reduced rent instead.

The Hwasun County chapter of the NEC informed Asan Elementary School that because superintendents of education offices were elected officials - and schools within the jurisdiction fall under the superintendent’s supervision - the act of offering free housing to families could go against the Public Official Election Act.

Shin Gwi-ja, the principal of Seoha Elementary School, said she was making sure the perks offered by her school don’t violate the law by asking for the NEC’s consultation through the provincial education office of South Gyeongsang.

According to Shin, a fund worth 1 million won ($860) has been secured for the free language programs based on donations from entrepreneurs who were born and raised in the region as well as the school’s alumni members.

Three empty houses have also been secured, for which families will be asked to pay 2 million won in annual rent. On offering jobs to the new students’ parents, the school plans to link them with companies or farmers within the region. An NEC official advised schools to consult with the commission before offering benefits to families, saying that Article 112 of the Public Official Election Act allows local government authorities to provide goods to constituencies if those goods are based on an ordinance of the relevant local government.

BY WE SUNG-WOOK [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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