ATHABASCA — Almost three months exactly after the question of Rochester School’s viability was raised yet again, Aspen View Public School’s (AVPS) board of trustees have an answer: the school will remain open until the end of the 2024-2025 school year, after which it will close its doors.
“Next year we could, and very likely would be falling below our 35 students (weighted moving average), which takes a significant portion of our rural small school funding away,” said AVPS board chair Candy Nikipelo. “We’ll remain status quo with our funding, to give the community and the school time to prepare for the eventual departure out of the greater community. It gives ample time for thoughts into what the next step will be.”
During AVPS’s board meeting held Jan. 25 at Edwin Parr Composite Highschool, trustees voted 5-2 — trustees Dennis MacNeil and April Bauer were opposed — to keep the school open for another year and a half, following an administrative recommendation that the school be closed.
“Nobody’s actually going to win here today,” said Nikipelo, addressing trustees and the more than 20 members of the public watching online and present in the room. “Not the part of the community that wants to close the school for their own reasons, and not the school division, and certainly not those who are rallying to preserve the school in their community.”
“This is a lose-lose situation for us,” said MacNeil. “This is the most difficult decision I’ve ever made as a trustee.”
Following the vote, MacNeil raised the question of whether closure would be reassessed if enrolments rise in the fall of 2024.
"I would never want to have to put the community through this again."
AVPS Superintendent Constantine Kastrinos replied any board motion could be rescinded or revisited at a future date.
Emotions during the meeting were high, with many trustees wiping away tears while expressing sincere sentiment about the weight of the decision.
MacNeil, who spent eight years as an administrator at Rochester School, was among the trustees who shared emotion-filled statements about the decision the board faced.
“The ghosts that walk those halls, being a part of that for years was amazing,” said MacNeil, holding back tears. “But I also know the importance of the decision that we’re making here.”
April Bauer, representative of Ward 4 — Southwest, which includes Rochester, was also affected, and touched on a theme brought up by Rochester mom and advocate for the school Candice Jensen.
“We are not in the business of closing schools. We are in the business of educating students,” said Bauer.
“We’ve prioritized rural sustainability. We talk about it all the time, it’s one of our priorities in our priority document, but we know that rural sustainability is a multi-legged stool, so to speak. It’s about the school, it’s about the community, its about … rural Alberta, it’s about a belief and a lifestyle, and without all of those legs working together, someone’s going to lose out. It’s a struggle,” she said.
The board’s decision aligns with Kastrinos’s recommendation, which he submitted alongside a summary of community engagement efforts, a 37-page analysis of the school’s roof, and a 45-page asset overview provided by the provincial government.
“The school has continued to decline in enrolment as predicted by the viability report; it is for this reason that I support the recommendation of the report to close the school,” wrote Kastrinos in the background summary.
“If we were to start a new weighted moving average next year, with what is currently enrolled, we would be beginning our first year of a weighted moving average (WMA) cycle below the level that is needed to secure extra rural small school grant funding,” said Kastrinos. “Instead of a (deficit) of $140,000 and change, it would be over $400,000.”
Funding is based on the WMA enrolment. The calculation for WMA is 50 per cent projected enrolment for the upcoming school year, 30 per cent current enrolment, and 20 per cent previous year's enrolment.
Updated enrolment projections were shared by Ross Hunter, communications officer for the division, during the meeting. A survey was released to community members following the Jan. 16 Rochester School council meeting to determine the enrolment intentions for students displaced by the closure.
AVPS received 15 responses to the survey, which represented 24 of the 37 students currently attending Rochester School. Three responses representing five students indicated intention to enrol in an another AVPS school. Nine responses representing 13 students said they would enrol in different division, and three responses representing six students replied with intentions to pursue other educational options, such as homeschooling or virtual education.
Another survey was released to community members with children aged zero to four to determine their interest in enrolling in Rochester in upcoming years.
Nine unique responses were received by the division, representing 12 preschool-aged children. Hunter said based on the ages submitted in survey responses, hypothetical projections for kindergarten enrolment over the next school years are: one student in 2024-25; three for 2025-26; two for 2026-27, two for 2027-28; and four in 2028-29.
In comparison, MacNeil voiced the number of students leaving the K-9 school in the coming years. He noted despite eight potential students entering the school in the next four years, 17 would be exiting.
Kastrinos also said the division had recently received communication from Rochester’s principal that verified two students had recently moved out of the area and would no longer be attending the school.
The motion put forward by the board will start the work necessary to determine next steps in the process of closing Rochester School at the end of the next school year. Hunter noted in a Jan. 26 email that those steps “will be shared with families, staff and other key stakeholders over the coming weeks.”
Although the choice was “heartbreaking,” as MacNeil described it, many board members echoed yet another sentiment expressed by the Rochester community.
“This is a conversation on a larger scale that goes back over a decade,” said Kastrinos.
“I have heard that from families, that it is quite stressful, it creates quite a bit of anxiety, uncertainty.”
Vice chair Anne Karczmarczyk addressed the ‘what if’ questions posed by Bauer and community members like Jensen. “We could always say, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen,’ but what we do know is the funding we are not going to get,” said Karczmarczyk.
“The community is even saying, the kids are saying, and the teachers and everyone keeps saying we don’t need to make the decision, we need to make a decision. We keep saying we don’t want to make the decision because it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. But we do need to make a decision, for those community members, for those students, for the rest of our division.”