Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 4, 2002
Bishops continue to oppose shared school facilities
Government official says province is not forcing the issue
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Shared school facilities have spread across Alberta over the past few years. There are Catholic and public students sharing building facilities in places such as Calgary, Red Deer, Sylvan Lake and Sherwood Park.
And there are many new proposals on the table, including one which seeks to create a public/Catholic school in the town of Hinton.
Catholic school boards say they want stand-alone schools where they would be able to preserve their Catholic identity but claim the government has left them no choice. If they agree to build a shared facility they quickly qualify for funding through the Innovation Fund.
If they insist on having their own school, they have to wait in line for years and may never qualify for extras, like Career and Technology workshops, especially if they have a small student population.
In September the Alberta bishops issued a pastoral letter opposing shared facilities, saying the model undermines Catholic education and is unacceptable to the Catholic community.
In the document, Catholic Education: Becoming Salt and Light for the World, the bishops stress the need for stand-alone schools to ensure the faith permeates all aspects of school life. They said government pressure to build such facilities has led to division within communities as well as overcrowding in some Catholic schools.
But the government denies it is pushing the shared facilities model down anybody's throat. "I don't think we are pushing (this concept). I don't think that's a fair characterization," says David Bray, director of communications with Alberta Infrastructure.
"All the projects that are in existence now were developed by the local authorities and the ones being proposed also came from the local school boards. They came to us and said, 'What do you think of this proposal?' We said it looks pretty good to us; see what you can put together.
"We are not pushing them to do it but we are not opposed to it. (Shared school facilities) is a solution that seems to make sense from an economical standpoint to us and from an educational standpoint."
Bray said money is scarce and the government wants boards to use all available space before building new facilities.
"We want all the school boards to look at the spaces they already have available because as you know - and take Edmonton as an example - there is a lot of space in inner city schools that's not being utilized and it's hard to justify building a completely new building somewhere else when there are classrooms there.
"So we want the boards to rationalize that problem, to see if they can use what's there now before we go and spend money on something new because money is fairly limited."
He said smaller school boards with small student bodies can build new stand-alone facilities but they likely would not be able to offer special programs like laboratories, woodworking shops, and Career and Technology labs.
Why not? "That's something Alberta Learning would be able to answer and they would argue that when there are not very many students involved, it is not really worth putting the money into it."
Bray said if a board priority is to build a stand-alone school, it can apply for one but it may take longer to get it. "The money is tight and we might, depending on the proposal, choose something (else) that benefits a larger number of students than a smaller number. If they want a stand-alone school, it might take longer, they might have to wait in line."
In an Oct. 29 interview, Archbishop Thomas Collins insisted there is an "emphasis" on building shared schools that he finds worrisome.
"I have not been involved in these conversations but my sense is that the government has been very strongly insisting on this model," he said. "I think the government has been very strongly pushing, advocating this model."
He agreed on the need to use available space first but questioned whether shared facilities are the way to go. "And I think that all indications are that it is not a great benefit."
The bishops' pastoral letter on shared facilities has been well received, Collins said. "I think people have appreciated the clear statement of concern," he said. "We have been pleased to see that the people realize that the bishops have a responsibility to speak on this and an appreciation that we have done so."
Will the bishops' letter prevent the further spreading of shared facilities in Alberta? "I don't know but I certainly hope it will help all the boards in the province to reflect on what are the issues involved with joint facilities," the archbishop replied.
"And I think that is already happening. It is important that all of the Catholic boards reflect on this together because it is not good when one board or another looks only at its own local situation because any one local model will have an effect on the whole province."
Collins said the key is for the shared facilities covenant of the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustees' Association to be clarified and he said the association is already working on this. "It must be really clear on what type of sharing is possible and what is not. "It's important for the boards to work together through the ACSTA to ensure they have a clear, consistent approach to this."
Added Collins: "I recommend the people read our letter and we will be working together with the Catholic boards because they are the ones that have the responsibility here. The bishops' statement is to give the perspective of the pastors to the community concerning what is needed for a Catholic school. And that's obviously a responsibility we have to the boards and also to the Catholic people."
Bray said he is aware some Catholic boards don't want to share the same building space with their public counterparts.
"Those are issues that the boards have to work out but we think on balance it's better for all concerned if they can share the space so then both sides get better facilities rather than having a little school here and a little school there," he said. "They can come together on the same piece of land."