Striking 'public' from school divisions' legal names riles school trustees

Cathy Hogg is president of the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta. Photo Suppplied

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Eight Alberta public school divisions — including Elk Island Public Schools — say they lost a key piece of their legal identity when sweeping new provincial legislation took effect earlier this week.

The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta has written to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange asking her to reconsider name changes she ordered that struck the word “public” from the legal names of eight of the 41 public school boards.

“We’re proud of being public,” association president Cathy Hogg said on Thursday. “Public is a great word. Why would you want to remove that word? It implies inclusion and everybody’s welcome.”

The tweaking of school boards’ legal names allowed separate school boards to keep “Catholic” or “Roman Catholic,” Hogg said, and that’s an inequity. With more charter and private schools expected to open up under a United Conservative (UCP) government that favours school choice, Hogg said striking out the word “public” may cause some confusion.

Education Act prompted name changes

A key campaign promise of the UCP was to replace the 40-year-old School Act with an amended version of the 2014 Education Act, which it did as of Sept. 1. Replacing the foundational piece of legislation for Alberta schools came with numerous changes, including paring back some rights and protections for LGBTQ students, creating a provincial cutoff age to start kindergarten and giving boards the power to fire an elected trustee who breaks the rules, among others.

The Education Act was first drafted, then amended by the former Progressive Conservative government, but never proclaimed into law.

One of the changes, first proposed in 2011, was to legally designate all public and Catholic jurisdictions as “divisions,” which would give them all the same rights and powers. Francophone boards were declared “Francophone education regions.”

Back in 1994, when the government of the day amalgamated school districts, Alberta was left with a patchwork of districts, divisions and regional divisions that had different powers depending on their designation, said LaGrange’s press secretary, Colin Aitchison, in a Wednesday email.

The Education Act waved a wand, and poof — all jurisdictions are now called divisions, which gives them the most flexibility to determine their electoral boundaries and determine what areas trustees represent, Aitchison said.

“This change allows all school authorities to operate under a level playing field,” he said.

The legislation also removed any numbers from school divisions’ names. Edmonton Catholic, for example, used to be school district No. 7. No more.

‘Public’ excised from names

However, when LaGrange issued a ministerial order on Aug. 15 spelling out all the divisions’ new names, public school divisions like Aspen View, Red Deer, Buffalo Trail and St. Albert were displeased to find the word “public” excised from their names. Elk Island, Fort McMurray, Grande Yellowhead and Medicine Hat divisions were also changed.

Hogg said trustees say the switch was done without consultation and conveys a lack of respect for public schools.

Many current trustees did not sit on school boards eight years ago when the Education Act changes were first contemplated, and consulted on, and did not know it included new monikers, she said. She’d like to hear a rationale for the shift, since there’s no evident financial benefit, she said.

Aitchison said the changes were to simplify naming conventions across Alberta.

Our government equally values public and separate school boards,” he said.

School divisions don’t have to rebrand, paint trucks, change signs, modify web domains or redesign their letterhead, he said. They can still brand themselves as public, such as Edmonton Public Schools does.

They will need to change their legal names on documents like bank accounts and contracts, he said.