Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
March 19, 2001
Alberta trustees happy with court decision
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association is applauding a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that removes some taxation power from Ontario Catholic school boards.
But the court decision also ensures equal per-pupil funding to separate and public schools.
The court said March 8 that the province was within its constitutional rights to end the Roman Catholic school boards' long-standing practice of setting their own tax rate.
"This decision certainly ensures religious freedom and equitable treatment of separate school students," said ACSTA president Lois Burkey-Gaffney. "It enforces equal per-student funding and recognizes the right to a taxation base, although not wholly independent from government control."
In a unanimous decision, the court upheld the 1997 Education Quality Improvement Act, a wide-ranging reform that centralized school funding decisions in the hands of the government.
The changes enabled the Mike Harris government to freeze education taxes and cut expenses by removing from separate and public boards the freedom to raise their own tax revenue and set their own budgets.
The court's decision effectively blocked an attempt by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) to roll back the province's contentious education overhaul.
But it pleased the province's Catholic trustees who supported the government's plan. Their view was that for the first time Catholic school boards would get as much money on a per-pupil basis as public school boards.
The OECTA claimed that the loss of taxation powers violated autonomy rights of Catholic schools that predate Confederation and were enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1867.
But the court said while the Constitution guarantees the religious freedom of Catholic schools, it does not protect a specific funding agreement.
"The new funding model treats Roman Catholic schools in the province fairly and equitable," wrote Justice Frank Iacobucci, adding that the 1997 Education Act does not interfere with denominational aspects of education, either directly or indirectly.
"Roman Catholic boards remain free to hire Roman Catholic teachers and chaplains, construct chapels, and tailor curricula to reflect Catholic values. The (reform) affects only secular aspects of education, such as size, teacher preparation time, teacher and trustee salaries, adult education and computers in the classroom," Iacobucci wrote.
The court denied that funding for denominational schools was at risk. "This ruling means we now have an unfettered provincial government imposing unilateral decisions on our education system," OECTA president Jim Smith told the National Post March 8. "Equal funding does not necessarily translate into adequate funding."
ACSTA lawyer Kevin Feehan said the Supreme Court of Canada found a "reasonable medium" between the position taken by Ontario Catholic teachers and the Catholic trustees.
While the decision means more money for Catholic schools in Ontario, it also means "less absolute autonomy" for Catholic boards, Feehan said. "They traded off autonomy for equity of funding. That's not a good thing or a bad thing. It's just a different system for them."
In Alberta the minister of education has been setting the mill rate since 1994.
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