Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
November 5, 2001
Trustees battle to protect Catholic school rights
Government to bring in legislation that will determine who are separate school supporters
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association is in a "constant state of prayer" regarding proposed amendments to the province's School Act that could undermine Catholic school rights, says the association's president.
The ACSTA could find out as early as next week whether its prayers have been answered.
Lois Burke-Gaffney says the bill, which Learning Minister Lyle Oberg withdrew shortly before the legislature adjourned for the summer and will reintroduce in the fall, "contains very good things but also very, very bad things."
"And so we are trying to get the very, very bad things taken out," she said Oct 26. "We are working very hard with the minister to arrive at a solution that's acceptable to both of us."
The bill, which deals in part with changes to the way separate school districts are formed in Alberta, was withdrawn because of objections raised by both public and separate school boards.
The biggest issue of concern for Catholic school trustees is the fact Bill 16 offered Catholics across the province the opportunity to choose whether to support the public or separate school district in their area.
"The whole language of the bill (in its present form) is unacceptable to us because it takes away a constitutional right," Burke-Gaffney says. "So we can't support it."
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.
While the ACSTA originally resisted any discussion on the issue of choice, it 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 Burke-Gaffney contends 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.
"This is clearly not acceptable to us," the ACSTA president said. "What we are requesting (regarding the issue of choice) is the status quo, what we have operated under for practically 100 years."
"And we have had very serious discussions with the minister in that regard. We have been very insistent with the minister that anything to do with the choice concept had to be removed."
Burke-Gaffney said Oberg has been "very candid" and has expressed a lot of understanding for the ACSTA's concerns.
"The best word that we've had from a number of areas is that the legislature will reconvene on the 13 of November" and that it'll deal with the bill early in the session, Burke-Gaffney said.
Should the bill receive third and final reading in its current form "we would have some very serious problems and I don't think the minister wants to go there," she said.
"We have been in consultation with the minister on several occasions throughout the summer and fall. Certainly there is no misunderstanding on the minister's part of what the position of the ACSTA is with regard to what we see needs remedy in the current language of Bill 16."
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.
The minister's office has received many suggestions for amendments to the bill from both public and separate boards but "at this stage the amendments haven't been written in yet," Alberta Learning spokesperson Jerry Bellikka said Oct. 26.
"We wanted to take the feedback that we got from those suggestions throughout the summer and incorporate those as part of this new bill but from what I understand it hasn't been finalized yet. So it is still being written."
According to Bellikka, the minister's hope is to come up with a bill that will satisfy both parties.
"That's why we spent the last few months listening to ideas and suggestions," he said. "But the final draft of what will be presented in November hasn't been written yet so I don't even know what it will look like until we boil down all that feedback into a new bill."
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