February 17, 2014

The Alberta government has approved funding to consolidate two or more Catholic schools into a single modernized school or a replacement school in Edmonton's southeast.

However, the school board is not rushing to build.

Instead the board will meet with the education minister and the parents of the affected schools before constructions crews move in.

"It's a wonderful announcement. We are really happy because we know that those schools are in need of either modernization or a new school but we don't know which way it is going to go," board chair Cindy Olsen said Feb. 3.

Edmonton Catholic Schools has been proposing to amalgamate St. Brendan, St. Gabriel, St. James and St. Kevin schools into a larger, state of the art replacement facility to be built on the site of St. Bernard School at 7211 96A Ave.

The board says the existing schools are all 50 years or older, are too expensive to repair and have low enrollments. The four schools have a combined total of 2,640 student spaces, yet only 761 students attend the schools.

The combined cost of maintenance for the four schools is estimated at more than $22 million. The cost of building a new replacement school is estimated at $21 million.

Among other things, the new school would have a capacity for 750 students, would house the area's pre-kindergarten 100 Voices program, would have a full-day kindergarten, would have a regular Grade 1 to 9 program and junior high Spanish bilingual and Ukrainian bilingual programs.

However, a group of parents at St. Gabriel School is fiercely opposed to the amalgamation plan and has been lobbying against inclusion of their school in the plan for several months.

"The provincial announcement certainly does not mean that St. Gabriel must close," says parent Lana Brenneis, chair of the St. Gabriel School Community Sustainability Coalition.

Brenneis says the closure of St. Gabriel would be devastating to the 191 students, their parents and residents throughout the area. She believes amalgamation of the schools would also significantly reduce the likelihood of parents choosing Catholic education for their children.

Olsen put St. Gabriel's total enrollment at 174 students and said it has a capacity for 750 kids.

"The school itself is 56 years old, is in real poor condition and has more than $6 million worth of deferred maintenance, which is what it would cost us to bring it to good condition."

The board is currently setting up a meeting with the minister of education to see the specifics of his plan. "Until we know the scope of the announcement it's hard for us to move forward."

The board started community consultations with the four schools in the fall of 2013. At the end of the consultations, in late March, the board will go back to each of those schools "with the results of what we heard in those consultations," Olsen explained.

Once the board is ready to move forward with the consolidation of "two or more schools," it will have to pass a closure motion and send a notice of closure to the schools.


This will set off a "consultation for closure process that will involve all parents and residents" in each of the four schools, Olsen said, stressing the number of schools the board closes "is going to depend on the consultation process."

To keep the process fair and open, the consultation will be facilitated by "an outside person," not the board.

"We want to keep it as absolutely fair and open and unbiased as we can so that all people, all communities and all groups are heard," Olsen said.

Brenneis doubts the consultations will be fair. She noted the questions the Catholic School Division posted online until now have been "very, very biased towards closing schools and not looking for proper feedback from the public."

The problem with the process is that the administration, not Olsen, is in charge of the consultation process, Brenneis said.

"So far their recent behaviour has been very biased. To think that's going to change since January, I don't expect that it will."

Brenneis thinks the ideal solution would be to invite people and communities to suggest what they would like to see happen with the schools and have the board consider some of those options.


"We understand there is quite a bit of unutilized space in these schools but part of the problem is that the utilization formula is not really very good for older schools," she said.

Brenneis said the board is "using a lot of different numbers to try to make our school attendance worse than it really is."

Many new families are moving into the St. Gabriel's area "so our attendance is actually going up; it's definitely not in decline," she said.

"Last year we had 180 children; this year we have over 190. To suggest that some of these kids come from the north side I don't think is relevant because they are choosing to come to our school."

The board calculates that about 60 of the students at St. Gabriel come from outside the school area.