Plan to combine 4 southeast schools stirs up parents

Parents at St. Gabriel School oppose a proposal to close four schools and build one new one in southeast Edmonton.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Parents at St. Gabriel School oppose a proposal to close four schools and build one new one in southeast Edmonton.

April 1, 2013
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Some Catholic parents in Edmonton's southeast are anxious over the prospect of having their schools closed to build one new school to serve the whole area.

They say the closure of their schools would leave little choice for parents seeking a Catholic education for their children in the southeast region.

Edmonton Catholic Schools is proposing to amalgamate St. Brendan, St. Gabriel, St. James and St. Kevin schools into a larger, state-of-the-art replacement facility to be built on site of the former St. Bernard School at 7211-96A Ave.

Becky Kallal, school board chair, says the current schools are all at least 50 years old, are too expensive to repair and have low enrollments.

The four schools have a combined total of 2,640 student spaces, yet only 761 students attend those schools, Kallal said.

"These are under-utilized schools, schools with too many empty spaces."

The combined cost of maintaining the four schools is estimated at more than $22 million. The cost of building a new replacement school is an estimated $21 million. Edmonton Catholic could request funding from the province for about half the cost of construction. The other half could be raised by selling some of the closed school sites.

Among other things, the new replacement school would have a capacity for 750 students, house the area's pre-kindergarten 100 Voices program, have a full-day kindergarten program, and have a regular Grade 1 to 9 program and junior high school Spanish bilingual and Ukrainian bilingual programs.

Lana Brenneis, who has two children at St. Gabriel School and chairs its parent advisory council, says by closing so many schools in the area, the district would drastically reduce parents' choice for a Catholic faith-based education.

"And the concern is that we are going to start to choose public schools over Catholic," she said.

The new replacement school would be 3.8 km away from St. Gabriel, which Brenneis says would make it impossible for parents to walk their children to elementary school.

FAITH COMMUNITY

"Our faith community will be diminished if St. Gabriel School is amalgamated," Brenneis said. The proximity of the school to St. Michael-Resurrection Church means students can walk to the church to interact with the priest and attend Mass and other events.

"We would miss this opportunity with the proposed closure."

Anna and Leszek Stolarz, who gave input at a meeting at St. Gabriel School March 11, recently sent a letter to the district criticizing the proposal.

"By choosing to consolidate four of our Catholic neighbourhood schools we are actually eliminating neighbourhood access and thus diminishing the ability to provide accessible Catholic education to families in southeast Edmonton," the Stolarzes said.

If the closure of St. Gabriel School occurs, the only choices left for families are public or charter schools in the neighbourhood, they said.

Ada Chan-Cumming, who has a daughter in Grade 2 at St. Gabriel, supported the original district proposal, which called for the amalgamation of St. Kevin, a junior high school, and St. Brendan, an elementary school.

"But I think to close three elementary schools and one junior high to open one K-to-9 is not a good idea," Chan-Cumming said. "It's too large an area to have only one Catholic school."

Leanne Strilchuk, chair of the parent advisory council at St. James School, said while the district's proposal is always in the back of parents' minds, parents at St. James have not been vocal about the issue.

"To be honest, we haven't heard much," Strilchuk said. "I think parents don't know where they are sitting right now."

Kallal said the board is looking at all factors and is listening closely to parents.

Not every community in the city has a Catholic school, she said, "but every community is served through an area (school); maybe we are looking at a wider area in this corner (of the city)."

The board started consulting with the community in June 2008, she said. At that time, it only had two schools in the amalgamation proposal: St. Brendan and St. Kevin.

"The community was very excited about it so we always had it in the back of our minds that it was a possibility."

FUNDING IS TOUGH

But Kallal said there has not been provincial funding for new schools in the southeast area or for major modernizations. With the new provincial budget, she predicts funding will be even tougher to find.

"The minister has said to us that if we can find some innovative ways of building schools, he would consider that."

That's how St. James and St. Gabriel were added to the proposal, she said.

The school board hopes that by selling some of the schools it closes, it will raise enough money to convince the provincial government to fund a state-of-the-art school in that area.

The new school would have a core capacity of 750 students but would be expandable if the student population grows, Kallal said.