They may have liked what the school provides, but Wolf Creek Public School Division trustees who voted last week to close Satinwood School east of Red Deer say they could not see an imminent rebounding in a school enrolment that had been halved in a mere five years.
With urban growth demanding them, the provincial government announced 17 new school builds for Alberta’s four largest cities earlier this year. Rural decline often comes at the expense of that urban growth, and many rural parents know the spectre of a school closure all too well.
Wolf Creek trustee Donna Peterson represents the district that encompasses Satinwood, a solitary school located a few kilometres east of the Joffre Nova Chemicals plant. She cast one of the two dissenting votes among trustees when the board’s majority opted on April 22 to close the facility at the end of the school year.
“I decided to put the children first in my decision because I would like to have seen the school carry on. But the unfortunate thing, as I told the parents once before, is it it’s not a school board that closes a school, it’s the demographics,” said Peterson.
The kindergarten to Grade 6 school has existed for over a century. It had an enrolment of 78 in 2008-09 but only 39 this year. Families have moved out of the area or simply moved their children to larger schools. At Satinwood this year, students from three grades are being taught in a single classroom.
Despite that fact, the academic performance of students is generally excellent, as small class sizes have enabled greater teacher-student interaction.
The per-capita cost of educating a student at Satinwood this year is $14,000 versus a division average of close to $8,000.
“Ultimately, unfortunately, the cost of educating kids in the school has to be a consideration when we have as trustees to think of the whole school division,” said board chair Trudy Bratland.
The board of Clearview School Division briefly considered closing three K-9 community schools with a combined population of 130 students in 2012 to help it deal with a large budget deficit. But trustees abandoned the prospect, to the joy of parents from Donalda, Brownfield and Byemoor. Each of those schools has faced enrolment declines of at least 30 per cent over the last 10 years.
In Chinook’s Edge School Division, no schools are at immediate risk of closure. The division is, however, conducting viability studies on Benalto School (enrolment 39) and Reed Ranch School, a facility 17 km east of Olds with 51 students from kindergarten to Grade 6. The studies look at whether students’ needs are being served and involve community consultations.
“In many of our schools we’ve gone through a viability process and never gone on to close a school, they’re completely separate,” said superintendent Kurt Sacher.
Both studies are in their first year and will continue through next year and perhaps beyond.
Something similar took place for Satinwood between 2011 and 2013 before the formal closure process was invoked last fall. There were proposals for expanding the school’s catchment area, a modified school calendar, making the school a hub for home schoolers or adopting Christian programming, but none earned the board’s assent.
Supporters of the school pointed to a proposed subdivision nearby as something that could sustain the school, but the lack of any time frame on the project did not help. Neither did the superintendent’s formal study of the area find that expansion plans for the Joffre plant would bulk up the school’s population.
“I believe we did as much as we could to keep that school viable and give it a chance. We’ve been watching that school for three years and supporting it financially for three years. I don’t know how much financial support a board could put into a school for how long a period of time and I don’t know either how we could come to another conclusion,” said Bratland.
The board poured in over $200,000 in supplemental funding to Satinwood over the last four years. The school’s 2013-14 budget was $586,000, though much of that money will not be completely saved through the closure, as staff will be deployed to other division schools.
Most Satinwood students are expected to attend schools in Clive or Lacombe come September, with the division having to come up with new bus routes and catchment areas to determine where the jurisdictional divide will be.
The board has directed superintendent Larry Jacobs to move forward with the disposition of the 30-year-old school building. In 2012, two years after a K-8 school in Mirror closed, a private Christian school was established in the old facility.
A reunion for former Satinwood staff and students is being held on June 7 at the school.