Benalto School closing

Benalto School will close despite intense lobbying from parents to save it.

Benalto School will close despite intense lobbying from parents to save it.

Chinook’s Edge School Division board voted to close the school on Wednesday morning because of dwindling enrolment and cost. Board chairman Colleen Butler said while the school provided excellent education its low student numbers — 22 this year — meant the division had to heavily subsidize it.

“If we had voted to keep this school open they would have gone back on to the regular resource allocation of other schools,” she said.

“We can’t afford to keep subsidizing it because that takes resources away from the rest of the division. We have 11,000 other students.”

On a per-student basis, Benalto is significantly more expensive than any other school at $15,918. The next closest is Elnora at $11,273. Of the division’s 28 other schools, the cost-per-student is mostly in the $7,000 to $9,000 range.

Depending on enrolment next year the school, 15 km west of Sylvan Lake, would have gone from its two teachers to one with a possible additional part-time position based on the new funding level.

“The feeling, I think, was the quality of education was probably going to diminish if that was the case,” said Butler. It would be a lot to expect a single teacher to make school plans for seven grades, she added.

Students from the kindergarten to Grade 6 school will be bused to Sylvan Lake’s C.P. Blakely School next school year if they stay in the public system.

Jodie Turner, chair of the Benalto Parent Advisory Council, was among about a dozen parents who attended the school board meeting and tried to buy two more years for the school to see if enrolment climbed.

School supporters went door to door in their community and were convinced that student numbers were poised to grow in coming years based on the number of pre-school children counted.

Turner, who has children in Grade 1 and Grade 5, said students won’t get the same level of attention in larger schools that they enjoyed in Benalto.

Parents believe it was the cost, not quality of education, that motivated the board’s decision.

“It sucks that it came down to dollars and cents rather instead of what the students need and the support they will get,” she said. “There’s no way they can get the same one-on-one attention that they get in Benalto.”

Benalto School was able to accommodate her daughter’s daily speech therapy, something that wouldn’t happen in a big school, she said.

Benalto School’s long-term prospects have been uncertain for a number of years.

A viability study was done in 2007 and updated two years ago. Last fall, a review committee was formed to meet with area residents and gather information for the board to consider before making its decision on whether to close the doors at the end of this school year.

Parents rallied to save their kindergarten to Grade 6 school, which they said was the heart of their small community.

Support for the cause came from Red Deer County, which urged the board to keep the school open to maintain the viability of the hamlet and its attractiveness to young families with school-age children. Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Jason Nixon also went to bat for the school.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com

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