By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Legislation related to the future of non-faith-based education in Morinville passed first reading Wednesday, putting weeks of speculation to rest on just what three area school boards came up with to resolve the matter. Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk introduced The St. Albert and Sturgeon Valley School Districts establishments act in the Legislature Wednesday afternoon.
Under the proposed Bill 4 St. Albert Protestant School District No. 6 will be dissolved and two new divisions will be established: The St. Albert Public School District No. 5565 and The Greater St. Albert Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 734.
Sturgeon School Division will be the division covering public education in Morinville and Legal, and the division could take over all or part of one of Morinville’s four schools, although what if any school that could be remains to be seen and is by no means a certainty. Lukaszuk said details are being discussed, but whatever the solution is to be, adequate facilities for public school students will be available in the fall of 2012. The ultimate determination will be based on present and future demographics and enrolment. When the infrastructure decision is made, school boards will communicate that information to residents allowing parents to vote with their feet and register their children accordingly.
In introducing the bill in the legislature Wednesday afternoon, Lukaszuk said the legislation ensures parents in St. Albert and the Sturgeon Valley have access to the same educational opportunities that are offered elsewhere in the province. “Let me be clear; there is no question about the quality of education currently being offered in these communities,” the Minister of Education said. “What we are assuring is choice and voice for parents – the choice of a public education or a separate Roman Catholic education, and a voice in choosing or running for the position of a school board trustee.”
Lukaszuk said Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, Greater St. Albert Protestant Separate, and Sturgeon School Division worked hard to find the right balance between recognizing community history, supporting choice, honouring students and parental rights, and collaborating across communities to meet student’s needs. The minister said compromises were not easy and he was thrilled with the results.
The new Greater St. Albert School District No. 5566 will cover land contained in The St. Albert School District No. 3, The Legal School District No. 1738 and The 4 Thibault Roman Catholic Public School District No. 35 immediately before those school districts were dissolved.
The Greater St. Albert Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 734 will cover land contained in The Greater St. Albert School District No. 5566 as well as that of The Guibault Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 552, The Cardiff Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 684, and The Cunningham Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 704. The new board will be made up of the existing eligible trustees of Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division and will now operate as a Roman Catholic separate school district.
Sturgeon School Division gains ground
Sturgeon School Division, who has been operating a public school in Morinville since the fall of 2011 in partnership with GSACRD, will be the public school division for Morinville.
Under the proposed bill, land contained in The Thibault Roman Catholic Public School District No. 35 prior to that district’s dissolution is also added to The Sturgeon School Division No. 24 for public school purposes and will form part of Ward 6 — The Namao Ward of The Sturgeon School Division No. 24. Land contained in The Legal School District No. 1738 prior to its dissolution is now added to The Sturgeon School Division No. 24 for public school purposes and will form part of Ward 2 — The Bon Accord Ward of The Sturgeon School Division No. 24.
Sturgeon School Division Chair Terry Jewell said he was pleased to be able to now offer traditional public education in the communities of Morinville and Legal. “Bill 4 is strictly a first step in a process,”” Jewell said. “Greater St. Albert and ourselves have a lot of work to do to figure out how we’re going to transition. We’re going to get the students involved and, as importantly, get the parents in the community involved.” Jewell said the next six months will see all concerned working hard to get ready for the start of the 2012-2013 school year.
GSACRD sees little change
GSACRD Board Chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull said the change from public to separate will allow the new division to continue to enact its mandate as a Catholic education provider.
“We’re quite pleased the new bill will confirm our status as a Catholic school board in all of our communities that we serve,” Turnbull said in a press conference. “We’re certainly pleased that this solution continues to provide choice in the region. We want to ensure all of our families that they will be able to continue to access Catholic education in the communities of Legal, St. Albert and Morinville. Our focus will continue to be on prayer, celebration, and services in the important aspects of our Catholic faith.”
Turnbull said the Catholic schools will continue to be welcoming to students of all faiths and they were pleased to welcome the families and students of the Cardiff and Cunningham divisions.
“I think we’ve been given recognition of what our status has really been all along,” Turnbull said. “We may have been the public board, but make no mistake; we were the Catholic Public board, and we will continue to be that [Catholic]. So really, there is no change. We will continue to welcome families of all faiths, families that feel the things that we offer in our schools – public service, all those service projects that we carry on – that’s what makes us attractive to families. I’m sure they will continue to find that attractive.”
Parents have mixed reactions
Morinville Public Education School parent Rayann Menard was apprehensive about Bill 4 on the eve of its being introduced. In an interview with MorinvilleNews.com Feb. 21 she said she was nervous about what the bill might contain. That opinion changed somewhat Wednesday as details of Bill 4 were announced.
“I feel positive about it. I’m feeling good about,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “I feel like it is a giant step in the right direction. We still have to wait for what infrastructure is going to be in place, but I’m feeling hopeful the right thing will be done there. All in all, I feel positive about this. I’m really excited. I’m still kind of reeling.”
Parent Thomas Kirsop, who early into the fight for a non-faith-based public education in Morinville, picketed in front of Town Hall and even delivered cookies to then Education Minister Dave Hancock at the legislature, was positive but guarded in his opinion on the bill.
“The Ministers bill does indeed address the issue of public and separate school education within the town of Morinville, provided his office and Alberta Education follow through with ensuring infrastructure needs are met,” Kirsop said, adding time will tell if GSACRD’s initially refusing to provide a non-faith-based education in Morinville will be proved wrong. “As far as determining whether or not the actions of GSACRD were wrong or discriminatory, and potential justice or corrective measures to ensure that no one else ever has to repeat our process? I don’t think we will be able to look to the Minister for that. I do however think we may see a determination of wrong doing through the Alberta Human Rights complaints that may prevent a recurrence of the Morinville anomaly in the future, or at least if a similar situation were to exist, provide a place for others to start seeking correction with a more efficient time frame in mind.”
The Alberta Human Rights Commission recently accepted the complaints of four Morinville parents on a matter of discrimination through denial of service.
Lengthy history as an issue
Although jurisdictional issues between school divisions have been an issue in Morinville in the past, the recent issue of a lack of non-faith-based education in Morinville first presented itself as an issue during the 2010 municipal elections when then Morinville resident Donna Hunter raised questions as to why Morinville’s only educational choice was Catholic schools.
A formal request for public education was made to Greater St. Albert Regional Catholic Division (GSACRD) in November of 2010 at which time Hunter and other parents lobbying for an education free of religion were told such an education was not within GSACRD’s mandate as a Catholic school division.
Although provincial legislation allows parents to remove their children from classes on religion, Catholic teachings permeate the school day in Morinville’s four GSACRD-run schools. Although that has been an acceptable situation for a large number of families in the community, it remained an untenable one for those Morinville parents who continued to put pressure on the school board and the province to provide a non-faith-based option for their children.
A temporary solution was found in the summer of 2011 when GSACRD chose Sturgeon School Division as its education partner to provide a non-faith-based public education to those Morinville families who desired it for their children. Public school students began their school year in classes in the Morinville RC Parish Hall and Morinville Community Cultural Centre. Grades 1 to 4 students later transferred to the Sturgeon School Division offices in Morinville and – most recently – to two modular classrooms attached to École Georges P. Vanier School. The modular classrooms were opened and occupied Jan. 23.
Demographics a key to infrastructure change
Previous Education Minister Dave Hancock initiated a census on minority and majority religion just prior to Lukaszuk being given the position of Education Minister. Results from that census were not revealed.
However, the preamble to Bill 4 indicates demographics in the St. Albert and Sturgeon Valley areas show Roman Catholics are now in the minority of the overall population.
“We are undoing decades of a system that obviously has proven itself not to be adequate,” Lukaszuk said, adding he has been working with the boards since mid-December of 2011 to hammer out a solution. “Time will be required. Not significant time, but time will be required to find out under this new legal arrangement what is the best infrastructure solution that serves children of the region best.” The minister said brick and mortar work will be done and that will take some time to iron out. “I can assure you of one thing and that is children will have adequate and appropriate space for public education in Morinville coming this September.”
Lukaszuk said he would communicate what that space is to parents as soon as is practical, and that the information would be communicated before actual infrastructure work takes place.
Whether that space involves additional modular remains to be seen; however, Lukaszuk defended modular and said it is the way schools are constructed in the province today. Modulars are added and removed to basic brick and mortar structures as community population increases and decreases.
Bill 4 can be viewed online at http://www.assembly.ab.ca/ISYS/LADDAR_files/docs/bills/bill/legislature_27/session_5/20120207_bill-004.pdf
A map of the proposed boundary changes can be found here.