Alberta Education Minister David Hancock

The great minds who run education in Alberta have reached a compromise they hope will make the bubbling issue of the complete lack of secular public education in the Edmonton dormitory town of Morinville go away, or at least simmer down for a while.

The solution doesn’t really make sense, and in the end it will probably make taxpayers just as angry as they already are, or maybe angrier, but it counts as progress of a sort. At least, starting next September, Morinville parents who aren’t Roman Catholics will have the opportunity to send their children to a secular public school in their own community.

Now, this is being billed as a local solution cooked up by two local school boards, but you can count on it that it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of arm-twisting and probably a promise or two from Alberta Education.

Whoever came up with the brainstorm, it was necessary to twist commonsense policies into pretzels to achieve its principal goal without lighting a fire under well-organized supporters of the community’s Catholic education system, which because of a constitutional and political anomaly is able to masquerade as a “public school board.”

So what do you do when the “public school board” in a diverse and growing Canadian community of 8,000 souls (as it were) offers only parochial Roman Catholic education and, worse, the “public” board, which to complicate matters is located in another town, tells parents who want secular public education for their kids to drop dead? That’s exactly what happened earlier this year when the board voted unanimously that there would be no secular education offered in Morinville.

But since many Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others in Morinville, not to mention the non-religious — who together make up more than half the historically Catholic town’s population — did not appreciate their children being proselytized with this particular brand of Christianity at school, something had to give.

When secular parents spoke up about it, though, the Education Department and the Conservative government — both terrified by the idea of well-organized and angry supporters of Catholic education getting anywhere near a polling booth — at first tried to ignore them, then suggested they bus their kids out of town, then tried to brush them off. Education Minister Dave Hancock, a tower of moral courage in this matter, suggested that if parents wanted secular education, they should take it to the courts. Morinville Town Council also ducked the issue.

The secular parents kept pushing, however, and after saying no, the Catholic school board hired a public opinion researcher to see if there was demand for secular education — presumably hoping there wasn’t — and discovered there was plenty.

And after that, someone came up with the weird solution of having another public school board provide the public education in Morinville.

Bear with us now, because this is complicated. The Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division (that is, the so-called public school board which is actually the parochial Catholic school board, based 16 kilometres away in another Edmonton bedroom suburb that used to be dominated by Catholics but isn’t any more … still with us?) will now pay the Sturgeon School Division, which offers public education in Sturgeon County, which surrounds Morinville, to provide public education to students in that town.

But parents whose children go to the new Morinville secular public school run by the county school division won’t get to pay their taxes to their kids’ schools, at least not directly, or to vote for their own school trustees.

Nope, seeing as this is a contractual arrangement, they’ll still have to vote for a trustee to sit on the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, who is unlikely to be engaged by their issues.

So, while they’re feeling some relief now, this group of parents — which is bound to grow as Morinville’s population increases — won’t be happy for long.

Neither, of course, will Roman Catholic parents in Morinville when the penny drops that a goodly sum of the tax money they pay into their school system will now have to be forked over to another school board run secular schools. Stand by for a tax increase, folks.

And, count on it, someone is going to feel shortchanged if they conclude their kids are being educated in inferior facilities — and according to the local press, the secular school will likely be located in trailers (whoops, “modular buildings”) and high school students will still be bused out of town.

Moreover, when funding runs short for education — as, erm, it seems to be doing right now all over Alberta — both groups are bound to feel shortchanged, especially if the local school board decides that it’s one of its schools not infused with Catholicity that’s got to go.

What’s more, this says nothing about what public school taxpayers in Sturgeon County will think or say when they conclude that the St. Albert Catholic school board isn’t paying enough for its secular schools in Morinville and it’s having an impact on the funds available for their kids’ educations.

Then there are all the parents in those other under-funded Alberta jurisdictions when they do the math about how much this is all going to cost to preserve an irrational situation in one town.

No, in the end, this complicated deal isn’t going to make anyone happy, and it’s certainly not going to solve the myriad problems created by allowing parochial “public” school systems to exist in a modern secular society, no matter how understandable is the history that led to this situation.

However, it will likely buy the Conservative provincial government enough time to get a new leader in place and another general election out of the way before the issue heats up again. Which, presumably, was the point of the whole thing.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...