By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Two-and-a-half months after then Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said a decision on public and Catholic school accommodations would be made in a matter of days, the decision has been made by his successor, Education Minister Jeff Johnson. Effective July 1, École Georges P. Vanier School in Morinville will be transferred to Sturgeon School Division and will serve Morinville families as the public school option in the community.
Morinville’s other schools: Georges H. Primeau, Morinville Community High School and Notre Dame Catholic Elementary will continue to be operated by Greater St. Albert Catholic.
In a press release issued Friday morning, the province said Johnson determined the transfer to be the best solution based on input from the affected school divisions, parents and area residents. The Education Minister praised the two school boards for putting Morinville students first by contributing to the solution. “I recognize this has been a challenging and emotional issue for the community, but this change is important to provide all parents the choice and voice they deserve,” the minister said in the release.
Vanier will be ready for students in time for the upcoming school year and additional modular classrooms will be added to Notre Dame Catholic Elementary to accommodate students from Vanier. The to be transferred school currently has a student population of 384, and Notre Dame Catholic has 357 students this school year.
The decision will see a number of students relocating across town to Notre Dame, a situation GSACRD Board Chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull said will result in the division’s full support. “We recognize this announcement will result in a change and challenge for many in our community,” Turnbull said in Friday’s release. “It is our commitment to work with families to ensure that all children will be supported during this transition period.” Turnbull went on to say GSACRD would continue their tradition of providing outstanding faith-based education in Morinville.
GSACRD Superintendent David Keohane said Friday afternoon there is a possibility Grade 5 will shift from Notre Dame to Georges H. Primeau. That possibility will be discussed with GSACRD parents Monday and Tuesday evenings in sessions to be held at each school. “That is part of the plan in terms of making the required spaces that we have work,” Keohane said. “The key piece here is that one of the opportunities that comes with this change to GSACRD is it allows Primeau to operate more like a middle school than it has in the past.”
The superintendent said middle school philosophy holds that a Grade 5 student in age and stage of development is more like a Grade 8 student than they are a Grade 2 student. Similarly, a Grade 8 student is more like a Grade 5 student than they are a Grade 9 student.
“Vic Pedersen, who is the principal, has done a lot of work this year in advancing the middle school culture there, and their staff will be dedicated to advancing it even further with this kind of grade configuration,” Keohane said. “The opportunity is it becomes more like a middle school functioning as a [Grade] 5 to 8 school.”
Morinville father Christian Rondeau was not pleased with the news the school his two children currently attend would no longer be operated by GSACRD. “Initial reaction – pissed off, angry,” he said, adding he has concerns about his youngest son who is autistic. “He’s been there for three years. Change is hard on him, very hard.”
Rondeau said he finds the situation frustrating for both his sons and other students. He has heard from some parents that they will stay at Vanier even though the school will be under Sturgeon’s jurisdiction. “Some parents just like having the school there and some want to be in the public school,” he said. “I know a few of the parents are staying there because they live a block away.”
The father of two said while he may not agree with the parent’s decisions, he respects their right to make those choices. He is uncertain if transferring Vanier to Sturgeon was the right decision.
“Ultimately, the numbers will be the guide for whether it was the right decision or not,” Rondeau said. “From my own personal perspective, and from a lot of people I’ve talked to, it’s not. I think Notre Dame is going to end up being way overcrowded for our kids. I think a lot of parents are going to stay with GSACRD because they like the system.”
The potential for an overcrowded school is something the father is concerned about, particularly where his autistic son Dominique is concerned. “If you jam too many kids into one spot, and you’ve got a kid like Dominique, then it becomes harder for him to be in a normal school. For his development, for his needs – special needs kids need to be with ‘normal kids’. They need to see that behaviour so that they can learn. They can learn from adults, but kids are a better model for them because they see someone their size. You jam them too tight, Dominique is going to be so overwhelmed by all the sounds and noises and lights coming at him that it may get to the point where he doesn’t get to learn from their behaviours.”
Despite his concerns, Rondeau is going to keep his son in the GSACRD school and is hoping everything will work out for all Morinville’s children. “I want these parents to have their choice,” Rondeau said. “From the beginning it has been let them have their choice. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem if, let’s say 150 kids end up in that school and there’s 600-and-some kids in Notre Dame. How is that the right choice?”
Morinville mother Rayann Mennard, who has long fought to have a public school in the community, was elated Friday after hearing the news. “My thoughts are that all of the hard work and the effort that so many people have put into this has finally paid off,” she said. “Morinville finally has public education with voting rights and infrastructure. It’s going to grow and thrive. I’m thrilled, I’m elated, and I cannot believe that it’s happened.”
But while thrilled that Sturgeon School Division will have a full school where Mennard can send her children along with those of families who choose the public education option, she is empathetic to those faith-based education families at Vanier who will move their children to Notre Dame this fall.
“I’m thrilled that all the hard work myself and so many others have put in has paid off, but I’m apprehensive and nervous about what this means for a lot of families that I care about,” she said. “I love a lot of the families that are in that school and have invested in the same way I have invested in Morinville Public. I’m hopeful that everyone gets what they want.”
Mennard said while she hopes some current Vanier families will continue to send their children to the public school, she knows those who prefer to stay faith-based will receive excellent education under the roof of Notre Dame Catholic Elementary.
“I really, really hope that the transition is smooth for everybody,” she said. “I have kids and I’m empathetic to all the other families with their kids. I know what it’s like. I know all about the hustle and bustle of having young, school-aged children. It was never ever anybody’s intention to make somebody’s life harder. I really hope this is a smooth transition for everybody and that everyone is able to bury the hatchet, and we’re able to look to the future and do the best that we can for our kids.”
School will not be overcrowded
Keohane said Friday Morinville Catholic schools will not be overcrowded, something he has discussed already with staff. “We will be among the lowest classroom / teacher ratio in our Morinville schools that we do in the school division,” he said. “We’re planning for that because we realize that one of the messages … is that schools will be overcrowded. The correct way of looking at it is the classroom spaces will be fully utilized, but the number of seats in the classroom will be in the low 20 range, which will be among the best standard that we would have within the school division. We have no appetite to announce we’re going to have this kind of programing with classes that are perceived as being overcrowded. That’s simply not the case.”
The superintendent said at this point in time staff cuts do not look likely. “We believe that attrition, which is the natural evolution of staffing through retirement or temp contracts running their course would take care of staffing needs that we have,” Keohane said, adding in the rare event they would have to reduce staff, Morinville teachers would not be prejudiced. “Teachers are signed to a collective agreement. They’re hired to the school jurisdiction and then they’re deployed to our schools. We have to honour seniority and programming need throughout the jurisdiction. That is a commonly misunderstood piece that teachers are hired by schools. We hire them to the jurisdiction and then they’re deployed, and we don’t prejudice their status in the school division by how long they’ve been involved or the program they’ve provided within a specific school.”
A staff reduction, seen as unlikely at this time, would impact teachers throughout the division as much as it might any individual teacher currently at Vanier. “We’re not getting the read right now that we would need to go there,” Keohane said of the thought of cuts.
Change in public designation
In addition to passing Vanier to Sturgeon School Division, GSACRD will no longer be a public division this fall. The St. Albert and Sturgeon Valley School Districts Establishment Act passed during the spring Legislative session and was proclaimed by the Lieutenant Governor on May 31. The Act comes into effect July 1, the same date Vanier changes hands. At that time Sturgeon School Division’s jurisdiction will expand and the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division and the St. Albert Protestant School Division will dissolve, to be replaced with the establishment of the Greater St. Albert Roman Catholic Separate School District and the St. Albert Public School District.