Red Deer County is backing parents trying to keep Benalto School open.
Maintaining a school in the community is a “benefit that could help encourage additional residential development and support the economic viability of the hamlet,” says a letter to Chinook’s Edge School Division superintendent Kurt Sacher endorsed by council on Tuesday.
The county points out that up to 90 residential lots have been proposed in an outline plan approved in 2009 and is still in effect. Benalto is also identified as a priority growth hamlet in the county’s Municipal Development Plan, although it is acknowledged no development applications are in the works currently.
“To ensure provision of services for current residents and the potential growth, Red Deer County has spent approximately $4 million for infrastructure improvements in Benalto since 2010,” says the letter from Mayor Jim Wood.
Red Deer County was asked by Chinook’s Edge to provide input on the proposal to close the school.
The school division is holding a meeting on March 3 at the Benalto Agricultural Grounds to hear from the public. A final decision on the school is expected to be made by the school board at its April 6 meeting.
Benalto resident Shannon Moorhouse is among a dedicated group of local parents campaigning to keep their kindergarten to Grade 6 school open.
Moorhouse, who has a daughter in kindergarten and a son in Grade 5, was grateful for the county’s support, which has been championed by local Coun. Richard Lorenz.
“That is great news,” she said on Thursday after hearing about the letter.
“I’m very concerned about the class sizes if my kids move to a bigger school,” she said. Her children have rarely had classes bigger than a dozen or so.
“I’m also very concerned about what the school closure would do to our town. We have a very close-knit community and a lot of it revolves around the school.”
Losing the school could stop future growth and could have a big impact on local community organizations and clubs. Benalto has had a school since 1938.
For her family, closing the school would mean the end of a family tradition. Her husband, who was born and raised in Benalto, attended the school with his siblings.
Lynne Lawrence had four children attend Benalto and has two grandchildren in the school now. She does not want to see it close because of the impact it will have on the community.
Young families moving to the community do so because there is a school there.
Chinook’s Edge looks at the viability of its smaller schools routinely. A viability study was done in Benalto in 2007 and updated two years ago.
A decision to close a school weighs costs and quality of education, says the division.
The school’s student numbers have been steadily dropping, from between 49 and 51 in the three years ending in 2012 to only 21 this school year. Looking ahead over the next three years, no increase in enrolment was projected.
Various efforts have been pursued in trying to build student numbers from the current 21, including trying to “recruit” students from other area communities or who are now being home schooled, as well as efforts to advertise and boost the school’s profile.
A dozen families from Benalto’s attendance area already send their children to schools in Sylvan Lake and eight other students go to school in Eckville and Spruce View.
On a per-student cost 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.
Sacher said the financial costs of a school are only one factor the board will consider. Input from the community and the county and the quality of education students receive — which is considered excellent at Benalto — are all weighed.
“There’s a whole number of factors that have to be considered,” he said.
The county’s views reflect those held by many in the community and will be part of the decision.
“I am very confident that the board will recognize the impact on the community as it deliberates with its decision in April.”
Benalto is not the only school that has been under the viability microscope.
A viability study was also undertaken for Reed Ranch School in Olds. However, unlike for Benalto, the review predicted a positive shift in enrolment and it did not proceed to the formal closure process.