Court ruling could force thousands of Sask. students from Catholic schools, education minister says

Some Saskatchewan schools could become overcrowded while others would see vastly reduced numbers of students if a judge's ruling on funding for non-Catholic students is applied, says the province's education minister.

Don Morgan says public school system would have 'an incredibly difficult time' handling influx of students

Saskatchewan Education Minister Don Morgan speaks about a court ruling barring funding for non-Catholic students in Catholic schools at a news conference on Friday. (CBC)

Some Saskatchewan schools could become overcrowded while others would see vastly reduced numbers of students if a judge's ruling on funding for non-Catholic students is applied, says the province's education minister.

"We've asked our officials to determine what the logistics of that might look like if we have to go down that road," Don Morgan said at a news conference on Friday.

In a written judgment released Thursday, Saskatchewan Justice Donald Layh ruled that the provincial government must stop paying for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools in the province.

In 2005, the Good Spirit School Division No. 204 filed a lawsuit against the Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 and the Government of Saskatchewan over the creation of a Catholic school in the village of Theodore, Sask., after the community's public school was closed.

Layh wrote that funding "non-minority faith students" in Catholic schools violates both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and "the state's duty of religious neutrality."

The ruling stands to upend the provincial government's current practice of paying for any students who attend Catholic schools, regardless of students' religious affiliations. It is set to take effect in June 2018, in recognition of its "significant repercussions," according to the ruling. 

Morgan said the government has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision and is also looking at its legislative options.

He said that if the ruling is applied, a student would need a baptismal certificate to be eligible for funding in the Catholic system. Without provincial funding, he said the average cost for a non-Catholic student to attend a Catholic school would be about $10,000 a year.

"For most families in our province, the idea of paying $8,000 or $10,000 or $12,000 per year per student is something that is not a workable option," he said.

He said he anticipates the public school system would have "an incredibly difficult time" managing the influx of students.

"We would have some schools sitting with vastly reduced numbers of students and some that would be greatly overpopulated," he said.

He added the decision illustrates why the government is proposing amendments in Bill 63 that would limit the ability of school divisions to sue one another.

"Our goal is, and always should be, doing what's best for the students in our province, and I can't say often enough the money should be spent in a classroom — not a boardroom, not a courtroom," he said.

"That's where we want our resources to go to and parents want and expect to have some certainty as to how the supports are going to be maintained for their children."

'We've experienced a loss of students'

Larry Huber, executive director with the public section of the Saskatchewan School Board Association, said school boards "have a responsibility to ensure the mandate of public education is understood and respected."

The court case, he said, was an attempt to get clarification on the appropriateness of public funding for the education of non-minority faith students in separate schools.

"It's important to public schools because we've experienced a loss of students; there's been implications for capital," he said.

"So it's appropriate for us, in terms of having responsibilities for public education, to ask this question and to ensure the government takes steps to determine if they're following what's constitutionally expected of them."

He would not comment on whether applying the decision would require students to be bused to other communities, but said any change that will affect children and families "has to take place in a thoughtful, organized manner," and that public schools will work with the Ministry of Education on whatever transition is required.

The government has 30 days to file an appeal on the ruling, but an extension could be granted.

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Impact on families

Parents of non-Catholic kids who attend Catholic schools are starting to react to the ruling, and it's not sitting well with all of them.

Vanessa Vrable, a parent of two non-Catholic children at Holy Family Catholic School in Sasktoon, said her kids will have to change schools or be baptized as Catholic. 

"It would probably be pretty devastating for them to have to change schools and their teachers," Vrable said of her kids, who are in grades one and four.

Vrable said she and her husband picked a Catholic school because they like the morals and values it teaches.

Her kids are baptized as United Christians.

"I wanted that religion aspect taught to them in the classrooms, which my children enjoy immensely. I shouldn't have to be forced to move my children because they're not Catholic. It's discrimination," she said.

Vrable said she wants her own children to choose whether to become Catholic when they're older. The idea of being forced to convert to stay in a Catholic school doesn't sit well with her.

"People shouldn't be choosing to baptize their kids in a certain faith, just so they can go to a specific school. You should have your other reasons why you're wanting to [convert]," she said.

with files from Micki Cowan