Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
June 18, 2001
School Act changes on hold
Trustee's, government have summer to iron out problems
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
EDMONTON — Catholic school trustees concerned about proposed amendments to the School Act now have until the fall to press for changes.
Bill 16, which dealt in part with changes to the way separate school districts are formed in Alberta, was withdrawn shortly before the legislature adjourned for the summer, because of objections raised by both public and separate school boards.
Learning Minister Lyle Oberg told the Alberta School Boards Association at its spring conference June 5 "he just was not comfortable with the level of understanding out there about Bill 16," says Alberta Learning spokesperson Jerry Bellikka.
"It seemed that we had done a fair bit of consultation beforehand, and that's why the bill was drafted the way it was. But once the debate started, we kept getting more and more suggestions for amendments."
There were parts of Bill 16 that both public and separate school boards welcomed, particularly the disbanding of the School Buildings Board, which would place decisions regarding funding for new schools in the hands of the minister.
But there was not enough support from boards for the solutions Bill 16 proposed to some ongoing concerns, Bellikka says, particularly separate school district formation and the establishment of francophone school authorities.
Oberg has made it clear the bill will be re-introduced in the fall.
Lois Burke-Gaffney, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association, said Oberg told public and separate school trustees at the ASBA conference that it was up to them to come up with suggestions to get around the roadblocks.
"The minister told us 'The solution is in this room,'" Burke-Gaffney says.
"We need to bring resolution to the objections that we raised."
The biggest issue of concern for Catholic school trustees is the fact that Bill 16 offered Catholics across the province the opportunity to choose whether to support the public or separate school district in their area, Burke-Gaffney says.
"It's a significant issue because it deals with the removal of a constitutional right."
As part of the constitutionally mandated process of forming a separate school district in Alberta, members of the minority faith in a newly formed district are automatically supporters of that separate school district.
ACSTA has been pressing the minister to accept alternatives to certain parts of the formation process, dealing particularly with the restrictions on the size of new districts.
Burke-Gaffney told the WCR in May that while ACSTA originally resisted any discussion on the issue of choice, they later conceded that Catholics in areas which are formed under one of the new "alternative" methods could choose which district to support.
However, Bill 16 expanded on that concession by offering a choice to Catholics in already established districts, which ACSTA claims would contravene the constitutional rights of Catholics in those districts. The onus would be on them to declare themselves separate school supporters, even if they have been so for years.
ACSTA has proposed a number of amendments to Bill 16, and will be active over the summer "trying to impress upon the minister what our concerns are," Burke-Gaffney says.
Some public school boards have also been vocal in their opposition to changes in the formation process for separate school districts, but for a different reason.
They are concerned that the existence of small public districts, especially in rural areas, would be threatened if separate school districts were allowed to expand across the province to meet public school district boundaries.
That's part of the misunderstanding the minister wants to correct before the bill is re-introduced, Bellikka says.
"In some areas like Grande Prairie, the public and Catholic boards have had a longstanding, good relationship.
"But there is a lot of misunderstanding from public boards in some areas where there is no separate school board operating and they don't have that relationship.
"The whole intent of the bill was to encourage collaboration and cooperation, but that message didn't come across, so we have to go back and talk to folks again."
Burke-Gaffney says she is hopeful a political solution can be reached before the bill is re-introduced in the fall session.
She says it would be "tragic" to have to resolve a serious question such as the constitutional rights of separate school supporters in court.
But she is concerned that that possibility was raised at the ASBA conference. "For the first time, I heard a school trustee ask the minister about the possibility of launching a constitutional challenge, and that was very disturbing."
Both Burke-Gaffney and Bellikka are quick to point out that the minister's response was "an emphatic 'no.'"
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