Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 16, 2000
Catholic trustees happy with court win
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
In a major ruling Oct. 6, the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed the constitutional rights of Alberta's Catholic schools.
The court rejected an appeal by the province's public school boards' association which aimed to enable the public schools to requisition money directly from their ratepayers, something which is a constitutional right for separate schools.
"What this ruling does for Catholic schools in the province is reaffirm what our constitutional rights are," said Lois Burke-Gaffney, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association.
"We are not getting any more special treatment than we have always had under the Constitution. It reaffirms the interpretation that we have employed in terms of what our constitutional rights are in this province."
The Public School Boards Association of Alberta challenged in court the constitutionality of major changes the provincial government made to education funding in 1994.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that school boards have no constitutionally protected autonomy; that there was no discrimination against public schools and that the Alberta government's cost-cutting and restructuring is constitutional.
"(In the ruling) the court held that the province's power with regard to education is subject to the constitutional protections given to separate schools," says an Oct. 6 ACSTA news release.
"It said that separate schools must be treated in a fair and non-discriminatory manner with respect to the distribution of monies by the province.
"In addition, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the right of separate schools to opt-out of the provincial government's Alberta School Foundation Fund and continue to requisition monies directly from their supporters."
"This is a very important decision because it assures future generations Catholic schooling and education in the province of Alberta and it also assures all of the parts of that schooling which are necessary to make sure that it's vibrant and strong," said ACSTA lawyer Kevin Feehan.
"So while Catholic schooling is being lost in some other jurisdictions across the country, it's being made more strong and more vibrant and more flexible in Alberta.
"So it's a complete reversal of the trend that we have seen in Newfoundland, which I think is quite an accomplishment."
The Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association was a respondent in the Supreme Court case.
The public school boards association argued that the 1994 changes were unconstitutional because school boards have a right to a reasonable amount of autonomy; that allowing separate school boards, but not public boards, to collect their own taxes is discriminatory, and that public and separate schools should be treated the same.
The ACSTA joined in the litigation to ensure that existing separate school rights were not addressed or abrogated in resolving the mirror equality or discrimination arguments advanced by the public boards.
In a written judgment Justice John Major said school boards along with municipal forms of government "do not have independent constitutional status," adding provincial governments have the exclusive right to determine how to deliver education.
The court found no discrimination because separate school boards get the same amount of money as public boards.
"This means that the current constitutional arrangement that we negotiated in 1994 with the provincial government is legal," said Feehan.
"It gives us the right to opt out of School Foundation Fund. It gives us the right to a top-up of monies from the provincial government so that we get the same money per pupil as public school boards."
The Supreme Court also found that legislation protecting separate school boards was meant to protect minority rights, not provide mirror equality between the two educational systems.
"We said that majorities are required to protect themselves at the ballot box and that because Catholics are a minority in terms of education they have constitutional protections to protect them from the majority," noted Feehan. "There is no constitutional right to protect the majority from the minority."
Burkey-Gaffney said the autonomy issue and the discriminatory issues were non-issues for ACSTA "because they really didn't make any sense."
"On the issue of mirror rights we didn't have any problems. If the Supreme Court had come down and said, 'Yes, public boards are entitled to levy and assess taxes, that's fine. Our concern was that they would alter or abrogate any of the rights that we have in order to give something to the public boards.
"(Fortunately), they didn't do that. They didn't give them anything more than they already have."