April 2, 2012

Alberta's new Education Act may be on hold due to the provincial election but it's still very much on the minds of Catholic trustees.

That's particularly true in Grande Prairie, where the trustees waged a war of words with the province to have their voice heard.

In mid-March, Grande Prairie trustees spoke out in the Daily Herald Tribune calling the consultation process on Bill 2 a sham and calling it the beginning of the demise of Catholic education in Alberta.

Board chairman Ralph Wohlgemuth was quoted in the newspaper saying the government had lost the trust of his board.

When contacted by the WCR March 22 and 23, Wohlgemuth explained why he felt that way, although he said things were changing in the board's favour.

"They (education officials) acted in a way that I think is wrong and/or they have not really been listening to the concerns that we have and that we have been expressing," he said.

The Grande Prairie trustees, like Catholic trustees across Alberta, opposed provisions that would allow for shared facilities between Catholic and public boards, the blending of separate and public boards in some situations, and the historic 4-by-4 system for launching new separate school districts.

They also opposed a provision that would allow Catholics to run for positions on non-Catholic public boards.


Wohlgemuth said his board sent letters on those points to the education minister, letters the minister claimed not to have received.

The government's proposed changes would have undermined Catholic education, he said.

"Those kinds of things, when you take them all together, make it easier at some point in the future for a minister or an interest group to come to the conclusion that we can do this equally well with one single publicly-funded education system," he said.

Wohlgemuth said a blended board would occur when separate and public boards are united. That's currently the case in St. Paul, where four trustees are elected from the Catholic community and four are elected from the non-Catholic community.

"In my mind, it would make it much harder to ensure that the faith is truly permeated and that staff have an opportunity for faith development as part of their professional development."

However, after speaking with Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk on March 21, Wohlgemuth was somewhat mollified. Lukaszuk told him he was willing to amend the act to meet the concerns of Catholic trustees on blended boards and shared facilities.

"Those were two that he thought he could amend and get through within the time frame that he has to pass the act. And they are probably the most crucial ones for us," he said.

"It took us standing up and making a big deal out of it to get his attention and to get government's attention and to realize that there is support out there for us."

How does Wohlgemuth feel about tying education to the Human Rights Act? Homeschooling parents have had at least two public rallies to protest this section of Bill 2.


"The current act allows parents to opt out of religious instruction but the Human Rights Act actually puts the onus on schools to tell the parents when they are going to do that," Wohlgemuth explained.

The Catholic board informs parents when they register their children for school that the Catholic faith permeates the school environment and lets them know that their children will receive religious instruction throughout the day, he said.

What about being able to teach the Church's teaching on homosexuality?

"The Catholic Church's teaching is not that homosexuality is a sin per se and that's the way we would explain that," Wohlgemuth explained.

"So we would explain it in a tolerant way, trying to help students understand that acting on those feelings of homosexuality would be where the Church would have issue."

But Wohlgemuth made it clear that, even though the issue is important, it is not a hill on which to die.

"(This section) certainly is a concern but it's not like the other (sections) in the act that we wanted to see changed."


The proposed Education Act is now dead after the legislature was prorogued March 26 and a provincial election called for April 23.

Meanwhile, the president of the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustees' Association, Tony Sykora, could not be reached for comment.

Sykora did send a letter to Lukaszuk March 19 expressing disappointment at the minister's refusal to amend seven sections of the act as requested previously by the association.

In the letter, Sykora made a new pitch to the minister to amend the section on shared facilities and another allowing for blended school boards.

Sykora said those two proposals would conflict with the preservation of a vibrant and distinct Catholic separate school system in Alberta.

The letter also says ACSTA agrees with the position of homeschooling parents who opposed the human rights section of the new act.

"The ACSTA supports Catholic parents as the primary educators of their children (and) believes that the Education Act must reflect this primacy of the home and parents as primary teachers," the letter says.

It suggested that section 16 be deleted from the act.