January 31, 2011
Debbie Engel

Debbie Engel

RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON — Edmonton Catholic Schools' trustees have voted to abolish gambling activities as a source of school funding.

But board chair Debbie Engel says gambling revenues will still be used in Catholic schools while the board looks for alternative and sustainable options.

After a unanimous vote Jan. 19, trustees adopted the position that "no school or school community in Alberta should have to raise money through gambling activities in order to meet children's educational needs."

They say, "The board does not see this type of fundraising as meaningful engagement in children's education."

In a brief Statement of Belief, trustees say it's the province's responsibility to provide adequate and sustainable funding for all aspects of public education.

The board has been dealing with the issue since the fall when the Edmonton Archdiocese implemented new policy guidelines which forbid Catholic groups to raise money through "harmful gambling activities."

Archdiocesan chancellor Father Gregory Bittman issued a statement Jan. 18 commending the school board "for adopting a formal statement of belief on the issue."

ATTAINABLE GOAL

Bittman said the archdiocese recognizes that the school district needs time "to make fundamental changes. However, we believe that fundraising without casinos is an attainable goal."

Catholic schools in the city earn about $6 million through casino fundraising every 18 months. Eighty-six out of 87 schools take part in the practice. They use the money to pay for school field trips, hot lunch programs, equipment and other extras.

Engel said the issue is one of social justice and educational equality. While larger schools in more affluent areas can afford to pay for extras, smaller schools cannot.

"I'm thinking there are some schools who literally wouldn't survive without casino funds," Engel said Jan. 24. "You take a school that has a population of 150 kids and you take away $80,000 every 18 months.

"They are getting the same $80,000 as a school with 800 kids. And so it's just not equitable to our board's way of thinking."

The board plans to look at a number of options, including lobbying the Alberta government for changes in how revenue is distributed, so parents don't have to work at casinos.

"We would like to lobby the provincial government to find out exactly how much money is coming into public education from casinos and allocate it evenly on a need basis throughout the province for adequate, sustainable funding for education," Engel said.

EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION

"We are not asking the government to come up with more money. We are asking the government to take the money and put it into general revenues and distribute it on an equitable basis so schools can have adequate, predictable funding."

Until that happens, schools will likely continue to rely on casino revenues.

"Make no bones about it. We are not going to cut people off of casinos when we know they are relying on it," Engel said. "We are going to work on a solution before anything like that is entertained."

Engel said both Archbishop Richard Smith and the board are reluctant to set timelines for the transition "until we know where we are going with this."

The archdiocese understands schools need time to transition away from gambling activities, said spokesperson Lorraine Turchansky.

"We are really happy that they have made a formal statement of belief on the issue and that's a great step forward.

"We also are in total support of their position that working casinos is not a great way to participate in the education of your kids," she said.

MORE CONSTRUCTIVE THINGS

"There are a lot more constructive things that parents should be doing and we certainly agree that this form of fundraising for schools is inappropriate and inequitable and so we are going to help them in any way we can in their efforts to secure alternate government funding."

Trustees plan to meet with community members and parent council members Feb. 24 to discuss "how can we as a community support the (archdiocesan gambling) policy and continue to fund our schools properly."

The board has already started a Catholic foundation that will be responsible for fundraising but Engel has little faith it will be as effective as gambling in raising funds.

"Do we see the foundation as the answer to replace $6 million every 18 months right now? No. And neither does the person in charge," Engel said.

"Will it eventually? That doesn't take away the problem that this is not social justice. Even if the foundation makes the money, it's still unjust the way the casino dollars are used."