Alberta government orders school boards to remove 'public' from names, raising fears

New provincial legislation from the UCP has removed the word “public” from all school boards, affecting eight of 41 public school boards across the province.

Some accuse UCP of trying to blur lines between public and private schools

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, right, shakes hands with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange after being sworn into office in Edmonton in April. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta's UCP government has removed the word "public" from all Alberta school boards, affecting eight of 41 divisions across the province and leaving educators and administrators scrambling to figure out why.

Speculation on the reasons for the change, which took effect Sept. 1, ranges from it being just a minor detail to a more conservative alignment with Premier Jason Kenney's support for private schools and homeschooling, with public school funding threatened.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange clarified the issue on social media Monday.

"The previous system under the old School Act allowed for unequal treatment of school divisions. Previously, there was a patchwork of different types of school divisions with different powers. With the Education Act, we are creating a level playing field," LaGrange wrote in a post shared on both her Facebook and Twitter accounts. 

"Before the new Education Act, regional divisions required ward and trustee representation from each of the initial entities that formed the regional division when regionalization occurred 25 years ago. Compare this to a non-regional school division that could easily amend trustee representation and ward boundaries to better reflect local circumstances without limitations. The changes we have brought forward by proclaiming the Education Act provides all school boards with this flexibility, and eliminates the red tape that was associated with regional division electoral boundaries."

Colin Aitchison, the education minister's press secretary, said the removal of the word was done simply as part of a streamlining process. The other 33 divisions in the province didn't use the word public in their names.

"The removal of the word public was done to solely simplify the naming conventions of Alberta's public school divisions," he said in an emailed statement.

"School divisions will still have the autonomy to brand themselves in a manner which they feel is appropriate for their division (e.g., prior to Sept. 1, Edmonton School District No. 7 branded themselves as Edmonton Public Schools. They will still be allowed to brand themselves as such)."

He also pointed to a similar change proposed by the Progressive Conservatives under then-premier Jim Prentice, which was abandoned when an election was called.

'A lot of suspicion'

"It is important to note that this change was originally introduced by the former PC government in 2011 when the Education Act was initially brought before the legislature."

One political scientist tells CBC News it may be too soon to understand the reasons.

"It could very well be a small administrative change to the legal title of schools," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University. "There's a lot of suspicion. And so what could be normally seen as just a simple administrative move for further efficiencies, or for legal reasons somehow takes on a more insidious role."

Political scientist Duane Bratt says the UCP's move to remove 'public' from school boards could be a small change with big ramifications. Or, it could be administrative. (CBC)

"Right now, if you look at the Calgary Board of Education, the CBE, the word public isn't in there so we don't know what impact this will have," he said.

"But there has been suspicion of the Kenney government toward public education for a while. He is closely aligned with private schools, with homeschoolers. He never went to public education himself."

The UCP campaigned on a promise to replace the existing, 40-year-old School Act with their amended Education Act.

LaGrange wrote the changes affect eight of 41 public school divisions.

"The vast majority of public school divisions never included 'public' in their title in the first place — yet they were very much public school divisions. This was the case under the NDP, just as it is now," she wrote.

LaGrange said the allegations of some dark motive is nothing more than fear-mongering.

"To insinuate that these changes are an attack on public education is simply an attempt to cause unnecessary fear and stress in Alberta's education system. I can assure all Albertans that our government fully supports the longstanding and successful tradition of pluralism in Alberta's education system — including strong and viable public schools."

Questions around funding

Many of the questions focus around funding, with the recent MacKinnon Report, which recommends funding reductions, and the budget about to come out in late October.

"Meanwhile, schools are struggling to figure out how much money they actually have," Bratt said.

"I think the issue here is not so much the legal change, as the lack of trust and great suspicion and paranoia that people in public schools have to a very recently elected government.

"They're going to go, 'Why do they want to do this?' And the government says, 'Oh, don't worry. It's just a simple little change. You don't have to change your stationery or your messaging. This has no impact whatsoever.' But are we going to discover a year from now that this actually did have a major ramification?"

Name change will cost money

Lorrie Jess, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, says the ASBA is seeking clarity on what taking "public" out of school authorities' names will mean, and how the costs will be handled.

"It will cost money to change branding and letterhead and banking, and there is no funding attached," Jess said, adding that ASBA has been informed there will be a grace period for making those changes, through a letter from Curtis Clark, deputy minister of education.

"We have flexibility to change our names as we buy new buses, or as time goes by," she said. "But the legal names of school divisions, so the 'public school division' on the side of a bus, can stay. It can stay on everything for now. But as time progresses they want us to change it."

CBC has obtained a copy of the letter sent by the deputy minister, Curtis Clark, which would appear to clarify that part of the issue.

"I want to be clear that with this change jurisdictions will continue to have flexibility on the name they choose to use on letterhead, signs and other branding. This means school divisions can continue to refer to themselves as 'Public' or 'Catholic' boards as part of their branding. It also means signs and letterhead do not need to be changed. However, if jurisdictions choose to change their name, they can adjust the signage on buildings and other items at the same intervals they would regularly be replaced. In fact, we expect immediate changes will be minimal," reads the letter.

It's another way to conflate and confuse and blur the lines between public schools, charter schools, private schools, and we think it's very deliberate.- Barbara Silva, Support Our Students Alberta

Barbara Silva, communications director with Support Our Students Alberta, finds the UCP changes alarming.

"I think it's really interesting that it is so specific and so small," Silva said. "So what that means to us is that it's a very deliberate and strategic ministerial order, because if it doesn't mean anything, why go about doing it at all? Why impose this new legislation on school boards to change their legal names?"

Silva believes it's all about privatization.

"They hope it flies under the radar with the public, but it's an incredibly deliberate, strategic plan to undermine public education, which is the first step in privatization," she said. "You undermine first, then you underfund, and then you privatize."

The Calgary Board of Education has never had the word public in its name. Calgary will now become the Calgary School Division.

A school board, Silva says, is unique, compared with a charter school or a private school.

"We have a democratically-elected board, we have citizens run for trustee, we go to the polls every four years and we elect trustees in a democratic process," Silva said.

"Charter schools don't have democratically-elected boards. So again it's another way to conflate and confuse and blur the lines between public schools, charter schools, private schools, and we think it's very deliberate."

Silva points out that for a government intent on cutting red tape, this change is likely to increase it.

"That's what makes us realize that this is absolutely deliberate. This is absolutely something they are going forward with in spite of the fact that they prefer red tape reduction, because this is going to create a lot of red tape — a lot of work. And it's going to divert funds from the classroom."

CBE to discuss name change Tuesday

Calgary's Board of Education has put the name change issue on the agenda for the next board meeting on Tuesday.  Silva hopes that's a sign that the CBE is ready to fight the changes.

"This is exactly why we elect the school board trustees, and school board trustees now need to start flexing the democratic muscle with which they were elected, and they need to start defending public education, and they should be having these meetings," she said. 

Silva said Support Our Students Alberta has already held a meeting to get mobilized, and plans to hold meetings in Edmonton, Medicine Hat and Red Deer as well.

"It's talking about what the privatization movement looks like, and all the parallels, because people like to think this is happening in the States, this isn't happening here. But that's not true."

The eight school divisions to have the term public struck from their names are:

  • Fort McMurray.
  • Red Deer.
  • Grande Prairie.
  • Grande Yellowhead.
  • Buffalo Trail.
  • St. Albert.
  • Aspen View.
  • Elk Island.

The changes also remove all numbers from the names. For example, Grande Yellowhead Public School Division No. 77 loses both "Public" and "No. 77."

With files from Terri Trembath


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