Education Minister Jeff Johnson visited Stettler on Monday for a brief meeting with Clearview School Division leaders fighting to save small schools.
Uncertain about the impact of next week’s provincial budget, the Clearview board still had unanswered questions after Monday’s meeting.
“We’ll know a lot more after the provincial budget than we do today,” said board chairman Ken Checkel.
While the meeting was set long before a deficit budget was projected, the session focused on sustainable schools and negotiations with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
“We also talked about viability of rural schools and funding for rural schools and capital projects,” Johnson said after the one-hour meeting.
He commended the board for making plans to consult with communities as it considers ways to make schools sustainable, despite decreasing enrolments.
Earlier this school year, Clearview trustees considered closing schools in Donalda, Byemoor and Brownfield, but a motion to explore that option was later defeated. Instead, the board has elected to visit all school communities in the district to assess the viability of each.
“Those are tough challenges,” Johnson said.
“The main lenses the boards have to look at is how do we provide the best programs and opportunities for students, and that may mean that from time to time, schools close or schools need to be consolidated or amalgamated and those are very difficult decisions for boards and for communities and that needs to be made at the local level.
“I’m encouraged they are going to the communities and talking to people and they’re going to talk about the viability of schools and how we deliver the best programming, and then that will drive decisions out of that. And we’ll try and help them out if we can.”
As the school board heads out on the road show, Checkel said it will be vital to have the provincial funding figures available to show the accurate picture about sustainability of schools.
“Every year, we have a small decline in (the number of) students, so we need to make small cuts in services.”
With provincial funding based on enrolment and 50 per cent of the division’s budget set for teachers, he said balancing that equation continues to be a growing challenge for rural school divisions like Clearview.
“It’s getting harder and harder to keep our operations going, financially. Primarily, we live in an area with declining enrolment and most of the provincial funding formula is based on enrolment.”
Checkel noted that the provincial budget and ATA negotiations will have a huge impact on Clearview schools.
“When we have to make budget cuts, that translates into staff cuts,” he said. “Over the past few years, we have been cushioning the cut by dipping into our reserves.
“It would have to be five per cent of our budget total in reserves for this.”
Checkel said the education minister is also working on a plan to support divisions with fluctuation in staffing.