Communities vow fight to save ‘small schools’

Donalda residents fear their community is in jeopardy if the Clearview School Division goes ahead with tentative plans to close

Donalda School is among three “small schools” that the Clearview School Division is considering closing. The others are the Byemoor and Brownfield schools. The next board meeting is set for Nov. 15 in Stettler.

Donalda residents fear their community is in jeopardy if the Clearview School Division goes ahead with tentative plans to close Donalda School and two other “small schools” in the district.

“We will fight it,” Donalda Mayor Bruce Gartside said after a community meeting last Thursday to discuss Clearview talks of closing Donalda, Byemoor and Brownfield schools.

“Without a school, we wouldn’t be much.”

At a school board meeting a week ago Monday, the Clearview trustees were presented with preliminary data from administration on financial outcomes that would result from school closings.

“We should add a column for killing communities,” said board trustee Cheri Neitz.

But not all trustees linked the well-being of communities to the Clearview board’s mandate.

“We are not here to save communities,” said trustee Patty Dittrick. “We are here to educate children.”

Byemoor, Donalda and Brownfield schools are in jeopardy of being closed, because of mounting financial losses, the board reported at its Oct. 25 meeting.

Peter Simons, one of the trustees, introduced a motion of “closure,” which under the provincial School Act could mean the elimination of an entire school or “a program or block of grades.”

After debating the issue, the board decided to postpone further consideration of possible school closings until its Nov. 15 meeting. That 2:30 p.m. meeting is open to the public, and many of the stakeholders vow they plan to attend.

In his motion, Simons cited an estimated operating deficit of about $900,000 in the 2011-12 financial year and a budgeted operating deficit of $1.76 million in 2012-13.

The board also directed superintendent John Bailey to prepare a report on the potential school closures.

Donalda was the first of the affected communities to host a community meeting to plan a course of action. Byemoor and Brownfield hosted similar meetings this Monday.

A full-house crowd at the Byemoor meeting heard many of the same concerns expressed in the Donalda and Brownfield gatherings. Parents said from budget information presented by the small schools, it appears it’s not those small schools causing the $1.7-million deficit mentioned in Simons’ closure motion.

School officials present were questioned where that number came from, but the Clearview representatives said they didn’t know where Simons got the number.

Byemoor parent Jake Walker was concerned the deficit figure would send the wrong message to the public about possible school closings.

“If that number is not accurate, Mr. Simons should make a retraction,” Walker said.

Gartside also reported a full-house crowd at the Donalda meeting.

“It was a great response of both parents and community members,” he said. “We became aware our school is in good financial shape.

“I don’t know where the $1.7-million deficit is coming from, but it can’t be attributed to three small schools.”

Gartside said he wasn’t concerned about Donalda School being placed under the school board’s scrutiny.

“We will do fine under the study,” he said. “But I would rather see the time and resources to do the study spent in a more useful manner.”

Gartside expressed concern of the possible harm simply the talk of school closings might do.

“We could lose a couple of children to (another) school because of this uncertainty,” he said.

Beth Fulton, who has a son attending kindergarten in Donalda, plans to attend the Nov. 15 board meeting.

“The school is a vital part of the community,” she said. “The school is incorporated in all community events. If the school were to close, the bus rides to Stettler would be horrendous.

“I live five minutes from Donalda and my son is on the bus 20 minutes. I live 20 minutes from Stettler, but expect the bus route would take an hour and a half — that’s three hours a day on a bus.”

Fulton said students would have “longer days” than many adults.

She said while some emotions ran high at the Donalda meeting, the Donalda delegation will “take a calm approach — cool heads work better.”

Corey van Zandbergen, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association Local 33 and the principal at Byemoor School, said he’s disappointed in the manner the motion has surfaced.

Van Zandbergen said that the Clearview board agreed last August to a “community consultation process,” but has skipped that step with its motion to close schools.

“Under (the agreed) process, the board was to travel to the smaller school communities, starting with Donalda and Byemoor, in order to discus with the school communities enrolment trends, funding and their impact on school programs,” Van Zandbergen said in a news release Friday.

“This process that the Clearview board had committed to, recognized, with honour and respect, the important role parents play in making educational decisions for their children. We find it unfortunate that so many excellent teachers, support staff, students and parents … have now had their future thrown into uncertainty.”

Van Zandbergen said Clearview receives about $1 million from a provincial grant known as Small Schools by Necessity.

“If these schools were closed, Clearview would lose this grant, thereby wiping out any savings one would get from school closures.”

Van Zandbergen also contends the Byemoor School has been “a great corporate citizen to Clearview.”

“Up to the end of the 2011-12 school year, we had an accumulated surplus of around $55,000, which we scrimped and saved for in case of the rainy day — which we knew would be the 2012-13 school year, based on enrolment projections,” he said. “We have not taken money from Clearview to build this surplus.”

“In fact, when students who previously attended Delia showed up at Byemoor, it led to a significant boost in funding. School board policy at the time was the board could withhold new funding deemed unexpected or excessive. About $40,000 was withheld, but no one from Byemoor complained that this money would be used in a different school. Clearview is a school division, not a division of schools.”

Van Zandbergen said he was proud of the Byemoor students’ record at William E. Hay in Stettler.

He said in the past 11 years, 51 of the 57 former students from Byemoor that have gone to William E. Hay after Grade 9 have completed Grade 12, for a completion average of 89.5 per cent.

That compares favourably with William E. Hay’s own average of 82.6 per cent.

Residents of the community have been quick to react to having the future of their school thrown into uncertainty.

Twila Buchwitz was one of the organizers of the community school meeting in Byemoor.

She said the support and compassion of the Byemoor school staff has had a positive impact on her son.

“The one-on-one support has made a huge difference,” said Buchwitz, whose son has Tourette syndrome. “Without that support found in a small school, he would have not been able to go on.”

“Who would move into a community with no school?” said Debbie Grams, who has had three children attend Byemoor School.

“Maybe the school board should look at the impact on the children and community before they decide.”

Supporters of the Brownfield Community School have the same sentiments as those of Donalda and Byemoor.

“We are not happy — we are not going to sit down and let this happen,” said Lynn Cole, who has taken an active role in school activities at Brownfield for several years.

“It is delusional for them (school board) to think they will have more money by closing the school. The majority of parents won’t be allowing their children to ride the bus three hours every day — they will be homeschooled.”

“Here, school and community are one.”

She said Brownfield’s school is in a sound financial position, with a $20,000 surplus.

“It pretty much shows they (school board) don’t know what rural life is like,” Cole said. “A lot of young couples deliberately choose to come back to small rural communities to raise their families. That will not happen if there is no school.

“The person who made the motion has never been to Brownfield school. This is just disrespectful.”

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