Alberta public school board group jumps into Saskatchewan Catholic school fray

The battle over a tiny school in rural Saskatchewan is having ripple effects in Alberta, with the Catholic and public school board associations in this province prepared to enter a messy legal fray.

A court decision in Saskatchewan found non-Catholic students are not guaranteed funding in Catholic schools

A tiny school in rural Saskatchewan has become the centre of a legal case that could have repercussions for the funding of the separate Catholic school system in Alberta. (CBC)

The battle over a tiny school in rural Saskatchewan is having ripple effects in Alberta, with the public and Catholic school board associations in this province prepared to enter a messy legal fray.

The case involves St. Theodore Roman Catholic School, a one-storey school on an unpaved road in Theodore, a village of 400 people about 40 kilometres northwest of Yorkton..

The school is at the centre of a 12-year legal battle. Last week, the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta (PSBAA) asked for intervener status in the court case.

The case sits at the intersection of government funding, religion and constitutional protections for religious minorities. It could ultimately change how provinces handle funding for separate Catholic school systems.

"Our association 100-per-cent supports the rights of minority-faith ratepayers to access separate education," Cathy Hogg, president of the PSBAA, said Thursday.

"But we also support what is written in the Constitution. The judge [in the St. Theodore case] was very specific that the Constitution does not provide for, simply put, non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools."

Public school closes, Catholic school opens

St. Theodore School was previously known as Theodore School. Court documents describe it as having between 26 and 42 students.

When the local public school board decided to close the school, the local Catholic board asked the Saskatchewan government for money to re-open the building under its jurisdiction. The new St. Theodore Catholic School opened in 2003. Thirteen of the school's 42 students were Catholic.

The local public school board argues there is no constitutional guarantee for the government to fund non-Catholic students in a Catholic school.

The PSBAA agrees.

"Our communities are being fractured, our resources splintered," said Hogg. "We think there's a much better way of using the dollars that are in place and putting them back in the classrooms."

But Catholic school organizations in Saskatchewan say the decision threatens parental choice.

"It takes away the right of the parent to choose the education that they feel is best for their child," Rob Bresciani, chair of Regina Catholic Schools, told the CBC last week.

"The parent is the first line of education and their right to choose — [the decision] would take that away."

In a statement on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon website, the province's Catholic school divisions state:

"We have the right to decide to admit non-Catholic students and to determine the extent to which their admission allows us to maintain a truly authentic faith-based Catholic school system. Our faith is a journey that includes inquiry of non-Catholics and growth of existing members."

12-year court battle

In April, a Court of Queen's Bench judge in Saskatchewan ruled in favour of the public school division that was challenging the creation of St. Theodore School.

The Saskatchewan government then invoked the notwithstanding clause to block the decision from being implemented. The government said it would force thousands of non-Catholic students from Catholic schools.

Now, the case is being appealed to Saskatchewan's top court. That's where the Alberta Public School Boards' Association wants to step in.
Cathy Hogg is president of the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta. (Prairie Rose School Division No. 8)

"What ultimately we'd like to see is one single system that offers choice within where our children can learn side by side," said Hogg. "Where we can offer better programming rather than continuing to support multiple systems, duplication of services."

In its motion to apply for intervener status, the PSBAA notes that Alberta and Saskatchewan share "parallel constitutional provisions for education" and that both fund separate Catholic school systems.

"Both provinces fund non-minority faith students in separate schools," the document states. "The PSBAA has sufficient interest to warrant intervention because the outcome in this appeal will influence constitutional law applicable to education in Alberta."

Money for legal battles

The prolonged court case has prompted fundraising appeals across denominations.

All eight of Saskatchewan's Catholic school boards are raising funds to take the case to Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal. They hope to raise $300,000.

In Alberta, Hogg said the St. Theodore School case is the PSBAA's first major legal undertaking. As of last year, it had a war chest of about $300,000, though it's unclear how much of that money would be used on the St. Theodore case.

The Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association said it intends to also apply for intervener status in the case, and has a legal fund to protect Catholic education and step into cases with constitutional implications.