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The community school that made history

County View

County View
John Healy

The recent announcement by Balla Secondary School of its plans for new playing pitches and an extension to its sports hall is a ringing endorsement of a courageous decision taken by the local community exactly 40 years ago. For it was in 1978 that the school was saved from closure after an eleventh-hour campaign to keep its doors open had been mounted by an energetic and dedicated local group.
The saga started in 1975 when the St Louis Sisters, who had run the school for nearly six decades, announced their intention to close the school and depart from Balla. Over that 60 years, the order had won for the Balla school an acclaimed reputation as a centre of academic, cultural and musical excellence. For most of that time, it had been exclusively a girls’ boarding school. A girls’ day school was then added, and then finally it was run as a co-ed school.
The order’s decision to leave, when it was announced, came as a huge shock locally. With three years to go before the axe would finally fall, a committee was formed to examine the feasibility of acquiring the school and ensuring its continuation as an educational institution.
And so began the protracted negotiations that would see Balla Secondary School write its page in education history as the first community-owned school in the country. But it was a long and arduous journey.
Not only were there stringent conditions laid down by the Department of Education, there was also the matter of negotiating an affordable purchase price for the school building and 17 acres of adjoining land.
Central to the discussions concerning the conditions was the then Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Joseph Cunnane, who had worked as a curate in Balla and retained a deep and abiding affection for the parish and the school. Under his astute leadership, the Department of Education came to accept the competence and ability of the proposed new school board of management under its designated principal, Pat Sheridan, and its full time manager, Fr John Horgan of Ballinafad College.
The other, equally formidable challenge was that of raising the £35,000 purchase price that had been agreed with the St Louis Sisters.
In a small town of little more than a couple of hundred inhabitants, and with a school catchment area that was neither wealthy nor heavily populated, that type of fundraising could well have been a deal breaker. But the voluntary committee, imbued with a spirit of courage and unflinching commitment, was made of stern stuff. And when the first fund raising collection throughout the catchment area yielded a return of £13,000, it was the vote of community confidence that the campaign needed. Slowly but steadily, week after week and month after long month, the work went on, and by the time for the handover of the school, only a small, manageable debt remained.
Although it was acknowledged that the final selling price represented good value for the purchasers, the genuine regret at the departure of the St Louis Sisters was tinged with a residual disappointment that so much fundraising had been required from such a small community. Older residents recalled that, when the St Louis Sisters first arrived in Balla, the local people had donated generously to help them purchase the lands and property from the Lynch-Blosse estate.
But none of that could take away from the local pride that Balla Secondary School had been retained in local ownership. And later years have served to emphatically endorse the wisdom of that unique act of community endeavour.