Some Battle River schools may close due to long-term enrolment decline

Tight finances and shrinking enrolment could see three schools in the Battle River division permanently closed by this summer.

School division is consulting parents on how to balance the budget

Some small schools in the Battle River School Division in central Alberta could close down this summer. (François Gagnon/Radio-Canada)

Tight finances and shrinking enrolment could see three schools in the Battle River division permanently closed by this summer.

The central Alberta board began a series of public meetings last week to discuss potentially closing or consolidating some smaller schools.

On Jan. 23, the board voted to consider closing schools in Round Hill and Hardisty, and to consolidate schools in Holden and Ryley, which are about 15 kilometres apart, into one K-9 site.

The board will host a public meeting on Hardisty's school closure on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Allan Johnstone School.

At a meeting last week in Round Hill, families were told their children could be moved to one of four possible schools within the division, the closest being the Charlie Killam School in Camrose, about 30 kilometres away.

The Battle River School Division is considering the move due to budget constraints and low enrolment in those schools, according to the division's public presentation to parents in these communities.

In a notice on its website the division said its $4 million in available reserve funding was spent to balance this year's budget without cutting staff or implementing higher fees for parents. But faced with frozen education funding through the next three years from the province, the board said it is looking for other changes to save money.

Families can argue their cases to the school board directly on Feb. 27, and the board is scheduled to vote on the issue on March 19. Any closures would be effective at the end of June.

Jackie Ewald, who has children attending Round Hill School, was shocked by the news and said she had hoped concerns about school closures in Battle River were in the past.

"Nobody wants to have their community go through this," Ewald said. "This has been rather devastating to the community to hear this is a possibility."

Student enrolment in Battle River has fallen nearly 25 per cent since 1995, to 5,960 students from 7,889. In Round Hill and Hardisty, the schools have student populations this year of 86 and 48 students respectively.

Board spokesperson Diane Hutchinson said parent councils were warned in November that the board might explore this possibility. She said other schools in the division have room for more students, but nothing has been decided yet.

"This is a period of time where the board has put these motions on the table so they can talk about the realities and the options," Hutchinson said.

Round Hill School is one of the schools considered for closure by the Battle River School Division. (Battle River School Division)

Parents are concerned that some students may have to ride the bus for up to 90 minutes to attend school, and say holding the vote in March is too soon.

"We don't know if we are going to have the time to be able to make a difference to slow them down and at least buy us another year to do something," Ewald said. "Once it's gone, we can't get it back."

After online consultations with parents, other cost-saving measures on the table include a four-day school week, higher fees or other cost reductions outside the classroom.

"There's no one chain you can pull that will save $4 million," Hutchinson said. "There's going to be significant changes in all kinds of areas."

Hutchinson said the school division doesn't yet know exactly how much money could be saved by closing the schools.

Alberta Ministry of Education spokesperson Colin Aitchison said the potential closures exemplify the tough times rural communities face.

"As families move away from these communities, enrolment begins to decline and school authorities are forced to make difficult decisions around the futures of their schools," Aitchison said in an emailed statement.

Amanda Henry, who has two children attending Allan Johnstone School in Hardisty and another she plans to enrol next year, said in the past her children had to deal with long bus rides and larger classes in neighbouring communities. Parents aren't being given a reasonable timeline before the board votes, she said.

"You can't just say that we're going to shut your school down and then not even give us any time to try to figure out something that we can do that can make this school work," Henry said.

Losing the school could be detrimental to the town, Henry said.

"If we don't have a school, our community is dead. There's no reason that our community should suffer this bad just because they want to shut a school down."