Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 10, 2000
Boundaries plan leads to Vegreville shuffle
Town's schools may be forced to join Elk Island district
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
Three years after being grafted onto Edmonton Catholic Schools, Vegreville's Catholic schools may soon have to be surgically removed to become part of another regional division.
If a proposal to expand the boundaries of Alberta's separate school districts to cover most of the province goes ahead, Vegreville will be forced to break away from Edmonton and join with Elk Island Catholic.
Under the proposal announced last month by the presidents of Alberta's three school trustees' associations, the boundaries of the province's 16 Catholic school districts would be expanded to include most of Alberta.
The plan would give every parent the opportunity to belong to a Catholic school district and would eliminate the so-called 4x4 method of establishing separate school districts in rural Alberta, a process that has often deeply divided communities.
"There will be no leapfrogging of boundaries," says trustee Ed Wieclaw, who represents Vegreville in the Edmonton Catholic regional division. The proposal specifies that new separate school district boundaries would be coterminous with those of one or more public school districts.
That means all the work and planning Vegreville and Edmonton have done together over the past three years may be undone, Wieclaw says, including the development of standard teachers' contracts, salaries and policies.
"It's taken us awhile to learn to sing from the same hymn book. We've had a very amicable regionali-zation, and it's still proceeding well, even after the honeymoon stage.
"Now, how do you unscramble the egg?"
Ken Lesniak, chair of Elk Island Catholic, said his board doesn't see ironing out the details as insurmountable.
"We were amazed at how we were able to put together our regionalization (Fort Saskatchewan, Sherwood Park and the former district of Camrose).
"So we would not see that as a difficulty, and we're looking forward to it."
Lesniak emphasizes that the new union, should it occur, would not impact negatively on the Catholic education in either Vegreville or Elk Island.
Although Vegreville never wanted to regionalize with any district, Wieclaw says, pressure from then-Education Minister Gary Mar was heavy.
It originally entered into discussions with Sherwood Park and Fort Saskatchewan, but time was running out, he says.
"Sherwood Park was meeting with Fort Saskatchewan and with us, and the dissolution of Camrose was still an issue, so there were a lot of other dimensions to that discussion.
"The pressure was really on."
Although Catholic boards approved the Presidents' Proposal at the March 31 meeting of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association (ACSTA), the vote was not unanimous.
Christ the Redeemer regional division in southern Alberta, for one, was cautious.
"It would be a good thing for Catholic education in principle, but the proposal leaves too many things to chance," says trustee Dave Lunn, who attended the ACSTA meeting.
"We have some reservations with the wording about the dispute resolution mechanism . . . and we would like to see more details before we sign on."
Lesniak says although the Elk Island board supported the proposal in principle, it also expressed concerns about the fairness of the dispute resolution mechanism.
"We also want to ensure that the issue of staffing (hiring Catholic teachers) and shared facilities were not on the table" as part of the dispute resolution process, he adds.
But support is high among boards for the elimination of the 4x4 system. The 4x4 system set up a process to allow a religious minority to establish a separate school district in a territory four miles long by four miles wide.
Although the option of forming a district through that method would still be available to communities, the new proposal gives separate school boards more options.
They could expand automatically to become coterminous with the public school districts in their area, or they could expand in response to a request from a group of Catholics within that area.
"The whole 4x4 issue has caused such grief that I think all parties would be happy to see it go," Wieclaw says. "It's an archaic system, and it's very divisive to communities."
Trustee Keith Shillington from the Evergreen regional division west of Edmonton agrees the proposal is a positive step.
And although he realizes some boards have reservations about supporting it without all the details being spelled out, he says his board feels it's a step-by-step process.
"Our feeling is, let's get the proposal approved, and then hammer out the details.
"There are always going to be details that need to be worked out."
But it remains to be seen whether the Presidents' Proposal will get the support it needs. All school boards will vote on the proposal at a special meeting on April 14, and if a two-thirds majority is in favour, it will be brought to Learning Minister Lyle Oberg, who has already endorsed the plan in principle.
For now, Wieclaw says he hopes more information can fuel some positive discussions to counteract the rumours and misinformation that are circulating around the province.
In the end, it comes down to what is best for Catholic education, he adds.
When Vegreville originally agreed to regionalize with Edmonton, "both parties agreed that for the good of Catholic education, the marriage could and would work."
Now, he says, the community finds itself in the same position.
"If it is indeed for the good of Catholic education in the province, we will make it work."