Athabasca petitioners push for town's first Catholic school

A push from parents to open the first Catholic school in Athabasca is provoking concerns about the potential implications for nearby public schools.

Critics say process excludes local voices, has no place in a pandemic

Candyce Nikipelo is chair of the Aspen View public school board, which is based in Athabasca, Alberta. The board is concerned an application to open a Catholic school in Athabasca will fragment funding and services for students in the town. (Submitted by Aspen View Public Schools)

A push from parents to open the first Catholic school in Athabasca is provoking concerns about the potential implications for nearby public schools.

A group of five Catholic people in Athabasca, which is 150 kilometres north of Edmonton, have petitioned Alberta's education minister to establish a separate school in the town.

The nearest Catholic school is about an hour's drive away, said Diane Bauer, chair of the Lakeland Catholic school board. If the petitioners are successful, Lakeland would open and run the school.

"It's not an easy process, but we are accountable to our Catholic parents, and this is something they have been very passionate about," she said in a Tuesday interview. "If we can establish a Catholic school and meet the needs of those children, I think that would be a great opportunity for those families."

One of the proponents, Bryan Taylor, said at a Tuesday public meeting that parents started the process in February 2019, then were delayed by the April provincial election and again by education legislation changes. He said he was approached by interested parents and grandparents, not all of who are Catholic. The education minister received their petition last September.

Diane Bauer, chair of Lakeland Catholic Schools, said if petitioners decide to push ahead with the process, a ballot will be held June 23 (Lakeland Catholic Schools)

To establish a new Catholic school outside an existing school division, at least three Catholics must petition the minister, notify the local public school board, hold a public information meeting then hold a vote, according to the Education Act. If more than 25 per cent of local Catholic electors cast ballots, and more than half vote in favour, the minister must approve the new Catholic division.

The mandatory public meeting was held in Athabasca Tuesday night, with many people attending online to respect public health rules in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

If approved, Lakeland would likely open a K-6 elementary school in September 2021, Lakeland superintendent Joe Arruda said at the meeting. It would take time to find a suitable building, he said.

He said the Catholic division does not turn non-Catholic students away from its schools. He didn't have an estimated number of potential Catholic students.

Catholics in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario have a constitutional right to publicly funded K-12 education.

Declining enrolment, fragmented students

Aspen View Public Schools runs three public schools in the town of Athabasca. Board chair Candyce Nikipelo is worried a Catholic school would siphon money and students away from an already shrinking pool of pupils.

Like many rural Alberta school divisions, K-12 enrolment across Aspen View division has dropped by more than 10 per cent in the last decade. Although Nikipelo said Athabasca schools are well attended, enrolment in those schools has also declined by about five per cent in the last decade, according to division data.

If enrolment continues to decline, program choices such as French immersion, some career and technology courses and junior high options will likely be unsustainable, Nikipelo said.

"Right now, the world seems to be divided by everything. Economics, race, religion, all of that," she said. "I'd rather us work in a cohesive group to come together to come up with an amicable solution for the community."

The public schools offer an optional half-hour religion course once a week. Nikipelo wants to know if the public board could reach a compromise that would keep Catholic families satisfied with the public school offerings.

At the public meeting, attendees raised questions about why the process was taking place during a pandemic, when many people could not attend a public meeting in person, why local non-Catholics are not allowed a vote in the decision and whether LGBTQ students would be welcome in a Catholic school.

Sarah Froese is an Athabasca parent who has a five-year-old son in Kindergarten and a seven-year-old daughter in Grade 2 in a public French immersion school.

She's concerned about the economic and social implications of dividing local students by religion. It could also affect resources available for both public and Catholic students' extracurricular activities, transportation and health supports, she said.

"I felt heightened anxiety when this proposal was first communicated and surprise that it was still being pursued, particularly in light of the current global situation," Froese said. "It has really heightened that stress in an already uncertain time."

If the petitioners decide to push ahead with the process, a ballot will be held June 23, Bauer said. There are 233 local Catholics eligible to vote.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for education minister Adriana LaGrange, said the last separate school division established in Alberta was in March 2019 in Vegreville. The division became part of Elk Island Catholic Schools.

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca