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Fawcett and Jarvie will lose their schools

Pembina Hills school division trustees voted unanimously last Wednesday to close down Jarvie School and W.R.

Pembina Hills school division trustees voted unanimously last Wednesday to close down Jarvie School and W.R. Frose School effective the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year and move those students into the new K-9 Pembina North Community School in Dapp.

There was little debate amongst the trustees, who instead read out prepared statements, or gave off-the-cuff remarks to the 15 residents and division staff that turned out for the May 14 meeting in Fawcett.

Board chair Kim Webster noted they were bound to follow a very specific process in considering the closures.

To that end, they had held two public forums in Jarvie and Fawcett in early April regarding the closures, as well as an additional meeting on April 15 where residents and groups gave presentations.

Trustee Jackie Comeau, whose ward encompasses the two schools, said she had originally thought the closure of both facilities was “a done deal” when she was elected, but she learned that was not the case.

She refuted the comment she heard repeatedly that the trustees were “just pawns of Alberta Education and told what to do.”

However, she felt this most recent round of public consultations had only served to re-open old wounds when the three communities were just getting accustomed to the idea of the Pembina North Community School.

As such, Comeau said the closure process Pembina Hills followed would have to be greatly altered if it was ever followed again.

Comeau noted she had been on the committee to keep Jarvie School open 14 years ago, and had sworn when elected she would never vote to shutter it.

However, she acknowledged the threat of declining enrolment keeps coming up.

“When is enough, enough? All the time and energy spent dealing with these issues has been going on for years and years,” she said.

Comeau said the province’s commitment to modernize Dapp School and add six modular classrooms was a “game changer.”

Although she heard complaints the modulars are a waste of taxpayer money, she said the money will only go somewhere else if not to Dapp, and the modernization would mean new resources for the school, like a band room, a science lab and a CTS lab.

“I say this, why should these kids not get all the modulars promised?” she said. “Don’t our kids deserve to get their education in a great setting?”

Last year, the province received 700 requests for new schools and modernization projects and only 35 were granted, she noted.

Comeau posed the question of what would happen in three to five years if the board voted not to go forward with Pembina North, attempted to make another such request to the province and were told, “You had your chance.”

She noted the new school would allow for the elimination of double bussing and shorter bus times. Comeau added that the board has ridden the bus routes, making all of the stops to ensure their transportation department’s claims were genuine.

“I really feel I cannot let this opportunity slip away from these kids,” she said tearfully.

Comeau noted that to ensure the sustainability of the school, the board must investigate the possibility of re-drawing the boundaries of attendance areas in the division, noting Westlock Elementary School is currently at 100 per cent utilization.

To this end, she later made two motions to conduct a review of the boundaries of attendance areas and to investigate the possibility of sending a bus north from Westlock to the Pembina North Community School. Both passed unanimously.

Trustee Jennifer Tuininga said she was the last person to rely on government promises, but the province has assured Pembina Hills the modulars will arrive by the fall and the modernization will push ahead.

While the division must be fiscally responsible, she said they have been given “a great gift” at a time when the province was lavishing funding on suburban centres. “We have an opportunity to establish a flourishing rural school,” she said.

She also said the sustainability of rural schools relies on a future review of attendance areas within the division.

Trustee Jan Hoffart acknowledged that no one wants to lose their school, adding “someone’s always going to be a loser in these situations when schools close.”

However, she said her focus was on the children and their education, and while there were viable alternatives to closing Jarvie and W.R. Frose School, she looked at what Alberta Education is envisioning with Inspiring Education and what the modernization offers. “I think there’s no better alternative than to amalgamate the three schools into one,” she said.

Trustee Judy Lefebvre said she had looked at the situation through the four filters through which the Westlock North Task Force had originally examined the situation.

Regarding the first filter of “Will the amalgamation result in greater educational opportunities?” Lefebvre said it went without saying that a larger student base would offer additional programming options.

Through the filter of “Will the new school be sustainable?” she said she could not predict if that would be the case, but “a very small school where we have triple grades is not sustainable.”

Webster commented she also didn’t know if the Pembina North Community School would ultimately be sustainable, “but we know it’s more sustainable than what we currently have.”

She added no one was sure Eleanor Hall School in Clyde would grow when they built a new facility, but it has.

It should be noted that there was no discussion of what would happen to the Jarvie School or W.R. Frose School buildings now that they will be closed.

However, at the public meetings in April, the trustees had said the division will enter into discussions with both communities to determine the best possible uses of the buildings, as per their administrative procedure.

The board also passed a motion to consolidate the attendance areas for W.R. Frose School and Jarvie School into the Pembina North Community School’s attendance area.

Kevin Berger

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