As the pot shrinks

Brenda Schimke
ECA Review Journalist

There’s no simple answer, but something has to change.
The Clearview School Division has been running a deliberate deficit for a number of years to bring their reserves down, but those are running out.  Very soon the Division will have to balance their budget and operate on their annual revenues.
Enter Stettler trustee, Peter Simons, and his motion on October 26 to close the Byemoor, Brownfield and Donalda schools effectively solving the budget shortfall.
Yet when speaking to his motion on November 15, Simons said it was never his intent to seek full closure, but such a motion was necessary to start the process of getting sufficient information to talk about re-configuring these schools.
The motion accomplished little and probably did more harm than good.  Residents of these three communities are spitting mad and rightfully so. They were attacked without warning.
Many board members were also upset with the motion.

“Invoking school closure to get information is overkill and backwards”, said Castor representative, Karen Holloway, “you go to the communities first.”
Bruce Gartside, mayor of Donalda also made the point that “the three smallest schools aren’t the only reasons why the Division is in a deficit position.”
A more proactive motion was made and passed after the closure motion was soundly defeated. The board has committed to meet with each school in the Division, large and small, between now and June 2013 to hear from them. In the case of Brownfield, Byemoor and Donalda relationships will also have to be re-built.
“The whole closure debate is primarily driven because we are losing significant numbers of students each year,” said Ken Checkel, chair, after the day’s proceedings were over.
“I look at small schools as a three legged stool — budget, quality of education offered and community support,” he said.  All three must be in place or the school can’t stand on its own.
Small schools in rural Alberta are not just pitted against larger schools in their own Division. The provincial funding model pits them against over-crowded schools in urban and suburban areas that are experiencing unprecedented growth.  It pits them against charter schools and private schools and Catholic Schools.
The provincial government could come to the rescue and re-jigger the Small School Necessity Formula to recognize geographic implications of sparse populations and the need for tiny schools, especially at the younger grades. Long, onerous bus rides for younger children should be outlawed.  The Clearview School Board has always been sensitive to bussing issues. Just this year, extra money was moved over to transportation in order to increase bus routes and reduce ride time for students in the Division.
The government could amalgamate rural school Divisions in Central Alberta and reduce administration costs, but that model comes with a whole new set of problems for smaller communities.
The only power the Clearview Public School Board has is to work within its means. Its means are determined solely by the provincial government. The government, in turn, must balance many competing interests without growing the deficit.
The reality is, as school enrollment continues to drop off in Clearview the pot gets smaller.  All communities must realize and accept their schools will not be unaffected.

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