A packed boardroom nodded approvingly last Thursday as the Clearview School Division voted against a motion to close small schools in Brownfield, Byemoor and Donalda.
The school board voted 6-1 against a motion to consider closing those schools. The lone vote in support of the motion was cast by Peter Simons, the trustee who presented the motion Oct. 25.
Last week, about 80 community residents rallied to show their support for the three small schools in question. The Clearview boardroom was filled to standing room only as delegations from each community pitched a passionate plea to save their schools.
There was a loud cheer from the gallery when the motion was defeated, but the mood was subdued as supporters knew the fight to save their schools wasn’t necessarily finished.
Simons reiterated his position that there never was an intention of “completely” closing any school, but rather to have the option to remove a block of grades, if deemed necessary. It would also enable the board to gain more information than an informal evaluation would provide.
The board has opted to study the stability of all schools in the district. That process is planned for the coming year.
Trustee Karen Holoway said the closure motion was “overkill” to get information and having it come to the board before the school evaluations were done was a “backwards” process.
“It was not a good process because of the stress it puts on small communities,” she said.
Holoway made a motion to conduct community meetings to evaluate the projected financial and educational outlook of schools at Big Valley, Botha, Brownfield, Byemoor, Castor, Coronation, Donalda, Erskine and Stettler by June 2013.
That motion passed unanimously.
“Community consultations just prolong it,” said Twila Buchwitz, who was part of the Byemoor delegation.
“This uncertainty creates doubt and people will rethink their decisions to relocate to the smaller communities.”
Byron Richardson from the Brownfield delegation said he was obviously in favour of the motion being defeated but was disappointed that small schools were put through the threat of closure.
“It was an irresponsible justification to get information,” he said. “There seems to be a dysfunctional attitude within the board.”
All of the delegations stressed the importance of schools to their communities and lauded the advantages of small schools and the quality of education they provide from kindergarten through Grade 9.
Longer bus rides — potentially up to three hours a day — were a common concern.
Donalda parent Beth Fulton said students would typically have a longer day than some adults and listed sleep deprivation and loss of family time as a major concern.
She challenged trustees to “lose three hours out of your day.”
The impacted communities offered help in finding a solution to Clearview’s money woes.
Having a fuel tank at Donalda would save money on fuel and wages, said Donalda Mayor Bruce Gartside.
He said the three small schools under review weren’t solely responsible for the deficit and savings should be sought across the division.
Byemoor parent Brad Mappin suggested the Clearview central office consider savings from within.
He said trustees voted themselves a per-diem pay increase last month and administration has increased the number of staff in the office.
The audited financial statement for the year ended Aug. 31, 2012, showed a deficit of $783,974, covered by reserves within Clearview.
That deficit could easily be surpassed in the 2012-13 school year if the board doesn’t devise cost-saving measures. It could virtually wipe out reserves — currently at $1.7 million — within a few years.
“We realize reserves are running out and we cannot continue with deficits,” said trustee Yvette Cassidy. “We must look hard at capitalizing savings and work with communities and principals to achieve that.”
Trustee Patty Dittrick said they must weigh the needs of the 118 students in the three small schools with the needs of all 2,408 students the board serves.
Jordan Webber, a parent of four from Brownfield, asked the Clearview board to commit to a long-term partnership with the community.
“Brownfield has a high-functioning school,” he said. “We are responsible with funds and students are achieving high grades. We are defending a school that doesn’t need defending.
“We are simply not interested in defending our school every couple years. We believe in our school and won’t accept closure or reduction.”
Despite declining enrolments across the division, Donalda School expects its enrolment to increase to more than 60 students.
Byemoor School has projected a modest, but steady, increase in its enrolment, adding 10 students in the next four years.
The Brownfield delegation said young families with school-age children have returned to the community specifically so they could attend a small school.
As the division-wide review begins, Byemoor and Donalda are the first schools slated for evaluation. Those community meetings are scheduled to be finished by the end of March.