Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
March 12, 2001
Project FIRST plans for schools' future
But acrimony, trustee resignation greet unveiling of plan
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
and LELLA BLUMER
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
EDMONTON — Edmonton Catholic Schools has presented an early-anticipated report affecting future programs in schools throughout the district.
The report of Project FIRST (Future Innovations Reaching Solutions for Tomorrow), Embracing the Future, outlines a bevy of new programs for the school district, ranging from full-day kindergarten in 11 more high-needs schools to possible year-round schooling at four district schools.
The program changes would address low enrolment and special program needs at a dozen additional schools.
However, the proposal that drew the most heat was a call for the school district to follow its own policy on school closures.
That led nine-year veteran trustee Ron Patsula, who represented the city centre ward that is home to the most under-populated schools, to quit the school board claiming there is a hidden agenda to close schools.
The report was the result of extensive consultation in the school district involving more than 6,000 members of the Catholic community.
The report listed 15 schools with less than 150 students that might possibly be closed under the board's school closure policy: Holy Cross, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Sacred Heart, St. Alphonsus, St. Andrew, St. Anne, St. Basil, St. Catherine, St. Clare-Ben Calf Robe, St. Edmund, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Jerome, St. Michael, St. Monica and St. Patrick.
However, it noted six of those schools would not be eligible for closure if other recommendations in the report are implemented: Sacred Heart, St. Alphonsus, St. Anne, St. Basil, St. Catherine and St. Edmund.
Joan Carr, director of education planning and administrative services, said the identification of particular schools did not imply those schools would close.
"We are not going to close 15 schools," superintendent Dale Ripley emphasized at a March 7 press conference.
He noted that one school on the list - St. Monica - is kindergarten-Grade 1 school with 112 students. It won't be closed.
School board chairperson Debbie Engel said Project FIRST aims at providing the best education for the district's 32,000 students. "Project FIRST is becoming an issue of school closures when that's not what it's about," she said.
However, Ripley noted that six or seven of the 15 "solutions teams," made of principals and parents from each of the district's schools, called for the district to follow its closure policy.
Ripley said that policy requires the administration to recommend closure for schools that are too small to offer good programs, have a number of combined grade classes and have a poor physical plant.
After that, the board must vote to close the school and carry out a process of public consultation before the decision is final.
Trustees received the Project FIRST report as information March 6, and approved one recommendation included in the report.
But no more decisions were made during a conflict-filled meeting that ended with Patsula resigning.
Trustees approved moving the English program (kindergarten to Grade 9) from St. Basil School to St. Alphonsus and St. Catherine schools. St. Basil School will keep its kindergarten-Grade 6 Polish program, but the rest of the school will be leased.
Trustees Ron Zapisocki and Jim Shinkaruk asked for assurances that the recommendations approved by the board were only a first step, and that more consultation with the communities involved will take place.
But parents at the meeting were disappointed with the board's reluctance to act on the recommendations.
Lynn Howat, a member of the Project FIRST planning team, and a school council representative from Holy Family School, said she thought parents were looking for action from the report.
"They have been talking about this in Millwoods for the past five years," she said in response to Zapisocki's question.
Howat says she became involved in Project FIRST because she wanted to ensure the best education for students and equal educational opportunities throughout the district, and she feels the report reflects that.
"We took parents' thoughts and dreams and built them into the report. I think it was a very professional process."
But the process wasn't what Bonnie Nicholas and Debbie Cavaliere of St. Vincent School expected.
"I was really excited about it at first," Nicholas says. I thought the board was looking for input into new programs, and they were really listening to parents."
Both attended the initial information forum and were enthusiastic about the process, becoming members of the solutions team for their area.
"Then the red flags started to go up," Nicholas says. "I got a phone call from the group facilitator who told me the focus of the group would be on utilization."
She then found out the solutions team included St. Andrew's School, which has been identified in two previous reports as recommended for closure.
"The team steered very clear of saying close St. Andrew's," Cavaliere says. But both felt closure was expected by the board.
That concern was voiced by Patsula during the meeting. "I question whether the voices of parents were listened to, and I question the validity of the process."
Patsula indicated he felt there was a "hidden agenda" behind Project FIRST, which was the quest for capital funds for the construction of new schools, at the expense of schools in older areas of the city.
The board's decision on the report's recommendations will form part of the district's capital plan, which will be presented next week. Any recommendations for school closure will be brought to a public board meeting scheduled for March 15.
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