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Pembina Hills considering reducing board to six trustees

Residents can have their say via an online survey until Feb. 10, or at school council meetings
PHSD map
This graphic shows the three wards and seven electoral subdivisions that make up the Pembina Hills School Division. As of the electoral ward review, the board is currently considering a couple of options that would reduce the number of electoral subdivisions to six or even two, though the number of trustees would be six in the latter case.

BARRHEAD - As part of their electoral ward review, Pembina Hills School Division trustees are considering two different options that would reduce their ranks from seven to six, thereby reducing costs for the division and roughly balancing out the population in each electoral subdivision.

As noted in a slideshow presentation that can be viewed on the Pembina Hills website, the current system of three wards (Barrhead, Westlock and Swan Hills) and seven electoral subdivisions has been in place since 1994.

Since that time, four schools have closed and enrolment has dropped by 1,578 students. In general, the rural electoral subdivisions have smaller populations than the Barrhead and Westlock subdivisions.

It is also worth noting that each trustee costs roughly $12,588 each year, which includes their monthly stipend, per diems for attending meetings and their Internet and cellphone allowances.

In order to alter the current electoral system, the board must pass a bylaw before Dec. 31, 2020, as the next general election will be held in October 2021.

Besides maintaining the status quo, trustees have come up with two options to revise the electoral wards.

Both include amalgamating the three wards into one giant ward covering the entire Pembina Hills School Division. However, the number of electoral subdivisions would be reduced from seven to six.

Under the first option, there would be six subdivisions: Town of Barrhead, Town of Westlock, Barrhead North, Barrhead South, Westlock North and Westlock South. The old Swan Hills subdivision would be absorbed into Barrhead North.

Deputy chair Wendy Scinski confirmed this could mean the trustee could be from either Swan Hills, Neerlandia, or Fort Assiniboine, just as how the trustee for Westlock South could be from either Busby or Clyde.

“Each school will have a trustee to represent them at the board table, but it is important that we are also aware that we represent all the students in the Pembina Hills School Division,” Scinski said.

As stated in the slideshow presentation, the benefits of this option would be that it’s more equitable in balancing out the population of each electoral subdivision and allows for flexibility in coverage of schools and therefore the responsibilities of trustees.

Another option is to reduce the number of electoral subdivisions from six to two, which would be named Pembina Hills West and East.

Each of these subdivisions, which would be separated at the border between Westlock and Barrhead County, would have three trustees elected at large.

The populations of Pembina Hills East and West would be nearly equal, but Pembina Hills East would have five public schools (R.F. Staples, Busby, Eleanor Hall, Pembina North and Westlock Elementary) while Pembina Hills West would have six (Barrhead Composite, Barrhead Elementary, Swan Hills, Fort Assiniboine, Dunstable and Neerlandia).

The two Hutterite colony schools would both fall within Pembina Hills East, incidentally.

While the benefits of this option are largely the same as the previous option, the board acknowledges this could mean that the towns could end up without a representatives, as could the rural areas.

Another issue with both options is that the trustees could be evenly split when voting, while the current system has a tiebreaking seventh vote.

Scinski acknowledged that a 3-3 vote on any motion would mean that it’s lost. However, she pointed out a vote can still be lost of four trustees vote against it.

“With regards to a major issue, a great deal of research goes into all decisions of the board,” she said.

Looking for input

Residents within Pembina Hills are now being asked for their input into the electoral ward review.

The first method of doing so is through an online survey, which will be available through the Pembina Hills website until Feb. 10.
Paper copies of the survey can also be dropped off at the Pembina Hills regional office.

The second method is through attending a presentation by one of the Pembina Hills trustees at an upcoming school council meeting.
Three such meetings were already held at Swan Hills School on Jan. 15, Dunstable School on Jan. 16 and Neerlandia Public Christian School on Jan. 20.

However, parents can also come out to the school council meetings at Fort Assiniboine School on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. or Barrhead Composite High School on Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m.

Due to the power outage Jan. 15, the school council meeting that was supposed to be held at Barrhead Elementary School has also been rescheduled to Feb. 3. A time has yet to be determined.

On th Westlock side of the division, a meetings was held at Busby School Jan. 20.

However, parents can also come out to the school council meetings at Eleanor Hall School in Clyde Jan. 22 at 7 p.m., Westlock Elementary School Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m., R.F. Staples School Jan. 28 at 7 p.m., and Pembina North Community School Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m.

When all the input has been gathered, a What We Heard document will be posted on the division’s website.

“The board will make the final decision after gathering input from all the stakeholders who provide us input,” said Scinski.

About the Author: Kevin Berger

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