Local school boards have until January to find a way to provide a permanent secular education option in Morinville or Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk says he will step in and impose one.
Lukaszuk held a closed-door meeting with trustees and staff from Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, St. Albert Protestant Schools and the Sturgeon School Division at the Alberta legislature on Thursday. The aim of the meeting was to urge all three jurisdictions to work together to find a permanent solution to the ongoing problem.
“If the three school boards cannot address the issue I will have the responsibility of resolving the matter, but at this time I am very optimistic that there is a lot of good will and a great deal of experience around that table,” Lukaszuk said.
The meeting’s result left a group of about a dozen Morinville parents feeling tired and dissatisfied. Jillian Schaefer-Percy, who has a child in the temporary Morinville Public Elementary School, said she’s concerned the issue has gone down this road before.
“From my understanding, our previous education minister also gave them that same directive to find a solution and to find one locally and they were unwilling,” she said.
Donna Hunter was among the first parents to demand a secular option in Morinville but moved out of the town when it appeared there was no resolution forthcoming. She’s frustrated the issue has taken so long to resolve.
“It has been a long haul and to know that we have come back to local discussion and preliminary discussions is tiring,” she said.
Minister pushes local fix
Lukaszuk said last week that he would ask the local school boards to work together to resolve the issue, which emerged more a year ago when a group of parents demanded that the Catholic board provide their children with a fully secular, non faith-based education.
The Catholic board, which advertises “a strong, loving Christian environment that is rooted in Catholic principles,” is the only school board in Morinville. It operates all four schools and because of its historic status operates as the public school board in Morinville, Legal and St. Albert.
After a group of concerned parents appealed to then Education Minister Dave Hancock to intervene, the Catholic board asked the Sturgeon School Division to operate a secular school program in Morinville. There is now a temporary school operating out of the division’s Morinville head office.
In the view of creating a longer term fix, Hancock commissioned a census on religious denomination for the area served by the Catholic board, but that survey has had a very weak response rate. Lukaszuk said last week he is not inclined to use the census results to intervene and he preferred a local solution to the problem, which led to Thursday’s meeting.
He said afterward that he believes the boards have a clear understanding of what they need to do.
“They are motivated to resolve the issue so that children have their legal rights protected and they have choice and they continue to receive top notch education,” he said.
Boards on board
Local school board chairs said they were equally optimistic they could solve the problem.
“We began the discussion. It will continue over the next several weeks in hopes of getting some long-term solutions in our communities,” said Lauri-Ann Turnbull, chair of the Catholic board.
The chairs gave no hints about what solutions they might be considering.
“I think part of it is getting it all on the table so that we all know where we stand,” said Protestant board chair Joan Trettler. “We have to explore what the options are and see what will work for us.”
Any solution to the issue could require the school boards to take on new responsibilities or lose some powers. Terry Jewell, chair of the Sturgeon division, said the boards are aware there could be sacrifices, but he is confident something can be worked out.
“We might all be unhappy at the end or we might all be happy. We don’t know, but I think the good thing is that we are prepared to work together,” he said.
Parents weren’t so sure. Hunter said she’s concerned the boards may be discussing a new solution without parents in the room.
“I very much hope that parents have meaningful involvement very soon, especially before any big decisions are made if that is what is happening in January,” she said.
Schaefer-Percy said she is not convinced that the minister’s promise to intervene will be enough to motivate the boards to come to a solution.
“He has had that authority and our previous education minister had that authority that entire time,” she said. “It is the willingness to use that authority that I am concerned about because I don’t know that a solution will come out in January.”