By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – On the very day when 5,000 students, teachers and parents gathered in St. Albert for an outdoor Mass hosted by Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (GSACRD) schools, Morinville parents who have been fighting for a non-faith-based education for their children finally got the results of a survey that showed just how many likeminded families there were in Morinville.
That information was revealed Thursday night during an information session held at Morinville Community High School, putting some concrete numbers to a debate that has divided the community in recent months and revealing Sturgeon School Division as the educational partner to provide secular education in Morinville.
The online and mail-in surveys went to the 1,161 families of Morinville’s approximately 1,700 students attending the community’s four Catholic public schools. The research company received 334 responses to the survey, a response rate of 28.8 per cent. Additionally, 1,514 residents were contacted by phone. Of that number 558 completed the phone survey, a response rate of 36.9 per cent. Both surveys sought to gauge the interest in secular education in the community.
Pivotal Research Inc., the company contracted to conduct the survey, estimates 272 Morinville students would enrol in a non-faith-based program in the community. That number is based on 106 of the 592 students directly identified in parent survey responses, the remainder based on the results of a random survey of the community. Pivotal’s research from the two survey forms shows 37 per cent of the community expressed support for another educational choice for Morinville that is non-faith-based. A pivotal spokesman said actual numbers could be based on factors not included in the survey – location of the school, programming and staff.
The data revealed that the minimum number of 106 represents a 6.2 per cent shift in enrolment from GSACRD to the secular program. Of that number 74 are elementary students, 18 junior high and the 12 high school students. When the community survey results are factored in, the survey company estimates 167 elementary students, 67 junior high students and 38 high school students would be possible numbers for secular education.
Because the survey cannot determine the views of the large percentage of parents who did not respond to the survey, actual percentages are likely to be higher than the 6.2 per cent identified in the parent survey. Pivotal estimates as much as 15. 9 per cent of current students would enrol at a non-faith-based school.
Six-month’s of debate
The lack of secular education first became an issue at an all-candidates forum held in Morinville last October during the municipal elections. Parent Donna Hunter, together with several other Morinville parents, formally asked GSACRD, who operate four public schools in Morinville, for a secular option last December. It was a request that was denied by the board in January because providing a secular education was not in their mandate as a Catholic school division. Instead, the board offered Hunter and her delegation seven options they could pursue, none of which met with the group’s approval.
Things remained at a relative standstill until late March when GSACRD’s board and the division’s superintendent met with Education Minister Dave Hancock in a closed-door meeting at the Alberta legislature. Following the meeting, the school division contracted Edmonton-based Pivotal Research Inc. to conduct an independent and impartial survey to gauge the interest in a non-faith-based education option. GSACRD also began the task of finding an educational partner to deliver a secular program for those who desired it for their children. While the division acknowledged their obligation to do so, they have maintained their position that they cannot be the ones to provide secular programing because of their Catholic mandate.
GSACRD board Chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull said since receiving the request for secular education in Morinville, the board has maintained educational choice was important and needed to be respected.
“Our faith tells us that support for our mandate should be freely chosen, and we have made our priority working with the Minister of Education to seek the legislative solution that would allow both electoral rights and program delivery associated with secular interests to take place,” she said, adding the best solution for the community and its spirit of cooperation and collaboration was to find a partner who could provide a quality education program that addressed secular interests. “In short, we continue to maintain that secular education is not the work of the Catholic school board.”
Thursday night’s meeting revealed Sturgeon School Division, whose offices are in Morinville, will be the education partner to provide the non-faith-based education for the community. Turnbull said GSACRD will enter into an educational services agreement with Sturgeon and maintain an arms-length approach, allowing the partner division to deliver their program.
“We greatly appreciate the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect that representatives from Sturgeon have demonstrated in our meetings over the past few days,” Turnbull said, adding she felt Sturgeon School Division would make its best efforts to provide education that meets parent choices.
Sturgeon School Division Board Chair Terry Jewell thanked GSACRD for giving the Town of Morinville and educational choice. Although unable to give a great deal of specifics as to what shape the non-faith-based program would take this fall, he did assure the community that the education would take place in Morinville, at least for elementary grades. The Ministry of Education was in Morinville Thursday looking at possible locations to house students. Two options presented during the info session were behind the Sturgeon School Division offices or on property near the Parish Hall. School facilities on those locations most likely being made of modular units.
The board chair said real numbers are needed as soon as possible and that an open house will be held at the Senior’s Rendez-Vous Centre June 14 to further elaborate on the non-faith-based program Sturgeon will offer. He encourages parents wishing the secular option to call the board office at 780-939-4341 to talk to Superintendent Michéle Dick.
“The first thing for us is to get further numbers on how many kids wish to partake in this program,” Jewell said. “It will be important for all families who wish to register for a non-faith-based program to get in touch with us as soon as possible. The sooner we know the number of students and what grades they are in, the sooner we can work with this community to establish the school and the breadth of programs we will offer.”
Jewell said the arrangement is the result of two locally-elected school boards being able to work together to provide a solution.
Parent delegation reacts
Donna Hunter, who lead the charge to bring secular education to Morinville said she was pleased Morinville parents who said no thank you to a fully-permeated Catholic education will have an option for their children this fall even though her own children will not be a part of that program. Faced with uncertainty about whether or not such a program would be in place, Hunter’s family, together with her sister’s family and their father have sold their Morinville homes and moved to Edmonton where they could be certain of enrolling their children in the kind of public education they have battled to bring to Morinville.
While pleased, Hunter was critical GSACRD waited so long to select its education partner.
“They’ve had all of two days, maybe three days’ notice,” she said, adding the Minister of Education is not accepting any of the survey numbers as firm, meaning there will be no reallocation of school space within Morinville, a situation resulting in portables being placed on available land. “Everything is going to be done between June 2 and September 1 because they were not given any permission to do anything earlier.”
Hunter said she believed the short time frame has put a large burden on Sturgeon School Division’s shoulders. “I can’t hold Sturgeon accountable for anything, no matter how it turns out,” Hunter said. “They can pull off something amazing because they are invested and want it to work.”
Of greater importance to Hunter and her delegation is the catch-22 situation whereby parents who opt for the non-faith-based option will be non-resident voters within Sturgeon School Division, thus becoming electorally disenfranchised.
Sturgeon School Division Superintendent Michelle Dick indicated Thursday night parents of children in the non-faith-based program would be able to form their own parent council. Board Chair Terry Jewell explained both boards and the Minister of Education are aware of the disenfranchisement issue and that it is part two of the puzzle that needs to be resolved on the road to providing a non-faith-based program to Morinville students.