Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock said the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division has an obligation to provide a secular education option in Morinville — “if numbers warrant” — or some kind of alternative option.
Hancock will meet with the board on March 23.
In Morinville, a group of parents, led by Donna Hunter, are calling on the board to provide religious-free instruction for their children.
Hunter argues her children are entitled to a public education free of religious instruction in Morinville, where the Catholic board operates all four schools.
In December, Hunter formally brought her request to Catholic trustees.
One month later, trustees voted unanimously against offering a fully secular education program in Morinville, arguing such a request was contrary to the division’s values and policies.
The board provided Hunter with seven possible solutions:
• Form a separate school in the Morinville area;
• Establish a private school, including a home education or charter school program;
• Approach any secular public school system in Alberta for the purpose of establishing an alternative program in Morinville;
• Approach any secular public school system in Alberta for the purpose of accessing a distance-learning program, online or otherwise;
• Privately transport children to secular Protestant separate schools in St. Albert or the public schools in Sturgeon County, or elsewhere.
The board also suggested it could enter into a transportation agreement with another school division to bus children from Morinville to the closest secular public school.
Hancock would not comment on whether he thought any of the solutions were ideal.
“I’m not going to get into a public debate over what is appropriate,” he said.
“It’s up to the board to work with the parents to determine what is an appropriate way of providing the kind of education that the parents want and they’re entitled to, if numbers warrant.”
Board superintendent David Keohane said no information has been gathered regarding how many people in Morinville would be interested in a secular program.
“We’re not doing that at this particular time,” Keohane said.
“With absolute respect to the delegation that has presented itself, we don’t have any reason to believe it’s broader than the scope of the delegation,” he said.
“That doesn’t minimize the importance of that delegation, it impacts the kind of response that would be given.”
Keohane said the board had received “several internal messages” from community members who have been “entirely supportive of how our school system operates.”
“We have to be mindful of that,” he said.
“We are meeting with the minister to work with him in validating the process that is the fairest resolution to this possible matter.”
At last count, Hunter said 50 families in the community had given quiet support for a secular program in the community.
However, she said many people are reluctant to commit until they know more about what a secular program looks like.
“They’re thinking, well what if I say that I want it and we end up in a room somewhere at the back of the school and we’re treated like outcasts?” Hunter said.
“Who wants to be part of a system being taught a certain way from a board who absolutely does not want to provide the education?”
She said parents want to send their kids to a school. “They don’t want to send their kids to one or two classrooms.”
“That’s not exactly what we’re looking for here. When 70 per cent are not Roman Catholic, are you telling me that we shouldn’t even deserve one school, even a K-12 — something?”
The issue has been gaining considerable media attention, both provincially and nationally.
Morinville town Coun. Lisa Holmes suggested the attention could hurt the town’s image. Earlier this month she put forward a motion to have the town act as a mediator, bringing all parties together to find a solution to the lack of secular education options in the community. She said the town should remain neutral in the debate, but could still try to bring all parties together.
The motion was defeated in a 4-3 vote.
Hancock said once the number of students interested in a secular program is known, an appropriate course of action can be determined.
“If there are enough students to fill a school, well, then they can run an alternative program in one of the schools,” he said.
“Presumably you don’t change the whole system to deal with one or two students but you do have to come to grips with the issue that they are entitled to opt out and you can’t opt out of permeation.”
See related story, page 22.