By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – A group of Morinville parents did not get the answers they were hoping for Monday night after waiting more than a month for the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (GSACRD) board to respond to their request for a non faith-based option for their children attending Morinville’s Catholic public schools.
GSACRD trustees voted unanimously on administration’s recommendation that: “the Board of Trustees not support the request that Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools provide a fully secular, non-faith based education for the children of those supporting the December 13 Delegation.”
The board also voted unanimously to send Donna Hunter, spokesperson for the delegation, a letter outlining the decision and a list of five independent and two administratively-assisted options the group could pursue to achieve their goals of a non-faith based education for their children.
It was a decision that has left Donna Hunter and her group disappointed but not surprised.
“It’s disappointing because this is exactly what we were told the first day I came to them,” Hunter said after Monday night’s meeting, adding she felt she and her group were put through a song and dance of presenting to the board and waiting for their decision. “All the news people were saying they’re not telling us what they’re doing – it’s a big reveal. For them to come back and tell me basically the same thing they told me on day one: We’re Catholic. We are who we are. We’re not going to be anything else. Exempt your child using Section 50 [of the Alberta School Act]. Go somewhere else. There’s no surprises here.”
St. Albert ward trustee Dave Caron, in moving the recommendation, reiterated comments he made after the Dec. 13 presentation by Hunter and her delegation.
“We have to recognize the reality of our two smaller wards – being Morinville and Legal,” Caron said. “In those two communities, the form of Catholic education we offer, in my opinion, is really about accessibility and invitation. That’s the nature of the form of Catholic education we offer there. However, Catholic schools by their very nature permeate the Catholic tradition we aspire to. That’s why you see crucifixes in the buildings. That’s why the December concert isn’t a seasonal concert. It isn’t a holiday concert. It’s a Christmas concert. So while I respect Mrs. Hunter’s right to request a secular school, I know our division really can’t be something that we’re not. We are a Catholic school division, so another alternative must be pursued.”
Alternatives suggested by the board include forming a separate school, establishing a private school, approaching a secular public school to provide a program in Morinville, educating the children through distance learning or privately transporting their children outside the division. Additionally, the board presented two options which could be achieved through GSACRD administrative assistance. One option would be for GSACRD to enter into a transportation agreement with another school division that would bus students wishing a secular education outside the division. The second would be to use existing legislation – Section 50(2) of the Alberta School Act and section 11.1 of the Alberta Human Rights Act to exclude the students from religion classes. However, the suggestion comes with the understanding that “the purpose of a Catholic education is to permeate Catholic faith, philosophy, theology and doctrine in all aspects of the education in the school.”
Hunter said in looking over the seven options, the transportation option might work for some families, but is one she is not overly pleased with herself. “I’m not thrilled about the idea of transporting, even if the convenience and the cost is there because if I’m a non-resident of another school board I don’t get to run as the trustee. I don’t get to vote for trustee. I give up democratic rights that I should be entitled to.”
Although displeased with the board offerings, Hunter said she and her group which has expanded to a core of seven parents since the Dec. 13 meeting would review and discuss the list of options the board provided Monday night. “I’m going to go through them point by point and we’ll talk about them, and obviously we’ll pursue what we can because we still feel we’re entitled to a non faith-based public school education,” she said.
Superintendent Keohane said he felt the options presented to Hunter by the board were fair, given the request as presented was to provide something that was not in the division’s scope and would require inordinate resource to accomplish any other way.
“In the interest of making sure we resource things well we want to be fair to both Ms. Hunter and fair to the beyond critical mass – the rest of the ratepayers – who have said, by virtue of how they support our schools, and, as our board chair has said, fill out their satisfaction surveys, ‘What you’ve got going is a good thing, please continue.’”
It is a position shared by board chair and Morinville ward trustee Lauri-Ann Turnbull, who explained for many years Morinville schools have recognized the diversity of the student population. “We’ve had parents of many different faiths and of non-faith who have come to our schools who we’ve been able to accommodate within the walls of our schools,” Turnbull said. “They’ve been quite comfortable. I think that we always try to accommodate as best as we can within our own mission, vision and values of our division.”
Proposed changes to Education Act could affect options further
Hunter and her group are concerned that if recommendations made by the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association (ACSTA) to the minister of education as part of stakeholder presentations on the soon-to-be revised Education Act are permitted, Morinville students and parents will have even less options than they do now.
ACTSA has recommended that Section 50(2) of the existing School Act, which allows parents to exclude their children from religious instruction or exercises, should not apply to Catholic separate and Catholic public schools. The organization is also recommending an added clause to the Alberta Human Rights Act which would provide an exemption for Catholic public and Catholic separate schools. Hunter argues the removal of the provisions would permanently eliminate Morinville parents’ rights to not have their children participate in religious instruction, regardless of faith.
Additionally, Hunter and her group are concerned that another ACTSA recommendation that seeks to extend faith requirements to serve on separate school councils be extended to include Catholic public schools. Hunter said if the ACTSA recommendation that only practitioners of the Catholic faith would be permitted to serve on school councils, 70 per cent of Morinville parents would be excluded from being able to serve.
“The recommendations say that boards will now have the ability in a Catholic public school to deny parents membership in school council,” Hunter said. “How is that possible?”
Hunter has taken her concerns over the ACSTA’s submission to the minister of education because she believes, if approved, the recommendations could have a lasting effect on Morinville students and their families.
“The more research I do, the more I find out, the more I’m terrified that this really is just the way it is and I don’t have a right to send my kids to public school; I have a right to send my kids to Catholic school because I live in Morinville.”
Human rights still an option
While the parents are committed to reviewing the board’s suggestions and continuing their goal of a non faith-based education for their children, elevating their concerns to a human rights issue may still be an option.
“I don’t like that I have to do that,” Hunter said. “I don’t even know if I want to do that. What a process to put my children through, to put me through. Is it easier just to move? Is that the message that we should be sending?”
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