Minister shakes up school boards

A major shakeup will be coming to school boards in St. Albert, Morinville and Legal if Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has his way.

Lukaszuk tabled Bill 4 in the Alberta Legislature on Wednesday, which, if passed, would expand the Sturgeon School Division’s mandate to provide secular public education into Morinville and Legal. It would also see the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division transition from a public board to a separate Roman Catholic board operating in those towns, as well as in St. Albert.

Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk speaks in front of a map of new school board boundaries in the St. Albert area during a press conference at the Alberta Legislature on Wednesday afternoon.(AMBER BRACKEN, Sun Media News Services)

The St. Albert Protestant School District would then be dissolved, to be replaced by a new St. Albert Public School District.

“This is the best solution that addresses the issue of choice, addresses the issue of voice and provides for peace in the valley,” Lukaszuk said.

Sturgeon School Division board of trustees chair Terry Jewell said that he was pleased with Wednesday’s announcement, but knew it wouldn’t end there.

“Bill 4 is strictly the first step in a process; Greater St. Albert and ourselves have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, GSACRD board of trustees chair Lauri-Ann Turnbull promised her organization would continue to uphold the high standard of education they have set throughout the transition.

“Our focus will continue to be on prayer, celebration and service to others, which are important aspects of our Catholic faith and are very attractive to people of all faiths and backgrounds,” she said.

Lukaszuk said this solution is a compromise on the part of all three school boards involved, and he was “thrilled” with how they all worked together in the best interests of students.

“Everybody in this arrangement has given up something, but they have given up that something for the betterment of the entire system,” he said.

Lukaszuk explained that, when school boards were formed in St. Albert, Morinville and Legal, Catholics formed the majority and thus the public school board. But since then, he said, demographics have changed, and this simply is no longer the case.

Parents in Morinville have been fighting for a secular public education for their children since December 2009. By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, GSACRD and Sturgeon had a service agreement in place that saw Sturgeon provide such classes within the boundaries of the town of Morinville.

“It was an effective, practical solution to the choice question, and it was an example of a great collaboration within the system. But it did not address the issue of voice,” Lukaszuk said, referring to the fact that parents of students in the Sturgeon-operated school in Morinville would not have had the chance to run or vote for Sturgeon trustee positions.

Bill 4 may impact St. Albert Protestant Schools the most, as they would lose their status a minority religious school district and the protections that go along with that designation.

“That is something St. Albert Protestant was not advocating for, to say the least,” Lukaszuk said. “But we are not going to set up two separate tiers of public schools in this province; that would not be conducive. And you frankly cannot have two majorities or two minorities in one geographic area. That defies logic.”

But Protestant board chair Joan Trettler said she was “disappointed” that the minister was unwilling to maintain those protections for them.

“We felt the minister could do that, that he could grandfather them or do something to ensure the rights we had would be maintained,” she said.

Some of the rights afforded minority boards, according to Trettler, include the right to exist, the right to elect trustees and the right to tax.

“Although they’re not rights that are really critical at this time — they’re not something that suddenly our lives will change drastically [if they're gone] — they are rights we feel, over time, have been helpful to our district, and we feel in the future, there may come a time when those rights might be important,” Trettler said.

“We feel our district is very viable and works very well, and I guess we want to protect that,” she added.

Elected trustees of St. Albert Protestant Schools would automatically become trustees of the new public school district.

Lukaszuk assured that there would be space for public school students somewhere in Morinville, which may mean Sturgeon taking over one of the four existing schools in Morinville from GSACRD or perhaps sharing space. The minister said he will make decisions on infrastructure at a later date.

GSACRD will also take on the Cardiff and Cunningham Roman Catholic separate school districts, two non-operating boards in the area.