Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
June 4, 2001
ACSTA cool to School Act changes
Gov't changes would leave separate school districts without residents
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
EDMONTON — Proposed amendments to Alberta's School Act could turn out to be a mixed blessing for Catholic education in the province.
Bill 16, introduced by Minister of Learning Lyle Oberg earlier this month, provides options to the current cumbersome process of forming new separate school districts.
That's good news to Catholic school trustees who have been looking to modernize the restrictive "4 x 4" process which has existed for the past 100 years, and ensure that Catholic education is available to students across Alberta.
But the amendments go too far, according to the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association, by giving every Catholic the right to choose whether to support the separate or public school district in their area.
"The effect of the act, if passed in its present form, is that no separate school district would have any residents," ACSTA President Lois Burke-Gaffney states flatly.
"Everyone would be considered a public school supporter unless they declared themselves a separate school supporter."
And that's not what was presented to the minister in a proposal by the Alberta School Boards Association, representing all school boards in the province, Burke-Gaffney adds.
The ASBA report, completed in November 2000, indicated that it was only members of the minority faith in newly expanded areas of existing separate school districts who would have a choice. They could become supporters of the separate school district, or designate themselves as public school supporters.
"The proposal circulated and voted on by ASBA was clear that the option to choose was not in those separate school districts already formed," says Burke-Gaffney, pointing out that the issue of choice was not one originally entertained by ACSTA.
"We initially resisted any discussion of choice, but as a concession to everyone at the table, and as ASBA felt concern for the fragility of small rural public boards, we conceded, but only in the new areas."
Constitutional provisions stipulate that all members of the minority faith who live in a separate school district formed under the 4 x 4 process are automatically supporters of that separate school district.
Bill 16 provides separate school boards with alternative methods of expanding into areas that are currently not formed as separate school districts, bypassing the 4 x 4 process.
Burke-Gaffney says the ACSTA has presented Oberg with a series of proposed amendments to Bill 16.
Along with concern about the issue of choice, another proposed amendment deals with equalizing the taxation assessment base between public and separate school supporters.
Yet another proposed amendment calls for ensuring that separate school members of proposed francophone regional authorities "have the right to permeate every aspect of the operation of separate schools in the region with the faith of the minority."
But with the bill currently before committee of the whole, and the spring session of the legislature expected to close soon, time may be running out.
At the same time, a number of public school boards, as well as the Public School Boards Association of Alberta, have continued to lobby against provisions in the bill which ease the formation process for separate school boards.
During second reading of the bill, MLAs cited correspondence from their local school boards indicating concern about existing public schools in rural areas that would be adversely affected by a transfer of students to a Catholic school.
The concern is not a new one, and also exists under the current 4 x 4 formation process.
Residents of Canmore established a separate school district in January 2000, which became part of Christ the Redeemer school division.
However, Catholic students in the area continue to be educated in the public school system as the public and separate school districts attempt to find a way of providing them with a Catholic education without splitting the community in two.
Ken Power, spokesperson for Christ the Redeemer school division, says "the board is sensitive to the fact that parents in Canmore are expressing a strong desire to have Catholic education for their children by next fall."
But a recommendation by an outside consultant, which proposed transferring a school from the public to the separate district, and temporarily dividing the school in two to house students from both districts while a new public school is built, met with strong resistance from the community.
While unable to comment on the community's reaction to the proposal, Power says the two boards, along with Alberta Infrastructure, continue to look at options for housing Catholic students.
With the provisions in Bill 16 that make it easier for separate school districts to expand into new areas, concern is growing among public school boards that the Canmore scenario could be repeated across the province.
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