Benalto parents submit charter school application

Benalto School parents have not given up their fight to save their school.

Benalto School parents have not given up their fight to save their school.

An application has been submitted to Alberta Education Minister David Eggen to keep the doors open as a charter school.

Today, parents will meet with a senior Chinook’s Edge School Division official to request the title be turned over to their group while they pursue their charter quest.

Chinook’s Edge School Division board voted in April following a two-year review to close the school citing dwindling enrolment and cost.

Board chairwoman Colleen Butler said at the time that while the school provided excellent education, its low student numbers — 22 this year — meant the division had to subsidize it.

Carol Rambaut, who sat on a review committee to determine the school’s future, is among a group of local residents determined to hold onto their school. They presented their charter school proposal to Eggen on May 12 in a meeting attended by Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Jason Nixon, who has supported keeping the school open.

Rambaut said the province has two months to make a decision on the charter school application.

Parents have done their homework and believe they have built a strong case for a viable local school and that the school division had significantly under-estimated the number of children the school would serve.

Volunteers going door to door have lined up 44 pre-registered students in Grades 1 to 6 and another half dozen or so kindergarten-age children, lured by the kind of education a small school is able to provide.

School supporters have even set up their own website at www.benaltocharter.weebly.com to keep residents informed about the charter plans.

“There is tremendous interest in people looking for that sort of setting for their children,” she said. “Interestingly enough, some of them are home-schooled children in the area (whose parents) have looked at it and gone, ‘That’s exactly what we want for our children.’”

There is precedent for what the parents hope to achieve. Parents in the hamlet of Valhalla near Grande Prairie led a successful drive to keep their school open as a charter school in 2008.

Alberta Education funds charter schools — of which there are 13 in the province — at 70 per cent of the level of regular schools. They must meet provincial education standards and are run as non-profits.

Rambaut said while parents are convinced they have a solid and workable proposal, they are concerned with how quickly the school division is moving to sell off the building.

Parents were unhappy on Tuesday to hear that a school official had led a private school group through the building while classes were in session.

The haste is reinforcing suspicions that the school board had already made up its mind before making the final decision to close the school.

Chinook’s Edge superintendent Kurt Sacher said the board has not received a specific request related to a charter school but will review any proposals for the school.

“If there is a group interested in using that building for whatever reason all they need to do is participate in the process and submit an application,” he said.

Under government rules, a public tendering process must be gone through before a buyer is approved.

“We do expect some interest. Whatever interest we get (the board) goes with the best option,” he said, adding Alberta Education approval is also required.

Sacher said the school division is not moving unusually quickly to dispose of the school.

“There is no rush. This is the normal timeline that a school division goes through when they’ve closed a school and they’ve moved to inform the government that they are going through a tendering process.”

Sacher said the board knows that the community wants to maintain the recreational area around the school and will do its best to honour that wish.

While no formal request for a charter is before the board, parents say the board has long been aware of their plans.

School supporters plan to meet with a senior school official today wednesday to present a formal proposal to assume title of the school. If approved, parents say the building would remain where it belongs, in the hands of the community.

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