Two Edmonton Catholic School trustees were reprimanded by the chair for “speaking against Catholic values.” Marilyn Bergstra was also voted off as vice-chair.
She was also removed as a representative to the Alberta School Boards Association.
Trustees Bergstra and Patricia Grell were reminded about trustee conduct at the Monday morning meeting. Bergstra said an email was sent out late Friday afternoon advising board members of the meeting.
Chair Laura Thibert said the board does not condone their recent public statements, doesn’t agree with their position, and “blatant disrespect for the decisions made by the board.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Thibert said Bergstra and Grell’s actions are harming the Catholic community and Catholic education.
“The board values public debate and democratic decision-making, but feels that Trustee Bergstra and Trustee Grell have placed more value on their own personal agendas… The board wants our stakeholders to know that we will continue to vigorously advocate and protect Catholic education.
“We would like to reassure parents that your children’s education will remain rooted in Christ’s teachings and our actions guided by gospel values.”
Trustee Larry Kowalczyk pushed to have Bergstra removed as vice-chair and said he thinks she should resign.
“I’m not a bad person,” Bergstra said in response. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.
“I stand up for the students in this district.”
After the meeting, Bergstra said she’s disappointed, but will continue to focus on her role.
“My colleagues are entitled to their opinion. Obviously, I was very disappointed in it. I don’t think their opinion reflects who I am, what I’m about. They continually suggest that I’m not in this to support Catholic education and I simply say… like everything else, there’s different view points.”
She said it’s her job to balance a number of things, including to be the voice of her constituents and to make decisions that are in the students’ best interest.
“I just don’t think it’s anti-Catholic to do what I’ve done. I’ve done what I can to advance outcomes for children,” Bergstra said, citing her work on mental health, mandatory vaccinations and comprehensive sexual education.
“At the end of the day, I have to balance all those pieces… We’re producing future citizens of tomorrow… They do need their faith and they do need to have their academics as well and that’s based on fact-based science.”
Grell did not attend the special meeting. Bergstra found out about the meeting on Twitter, she said.
Lori Nagy, a spokeswoman for the district, said this type of action is extremely rare. She doesn’t believe Edmonton Catholic Schools has ever removed a chair or vice-chair.
Bergstra previously started a debate about mandatory religion courses and if there were ways students who didn’t have nine religion credits could still go to their graduation ceremony. Last week she said she won’t likely bring the motion back after it was voted off the agenda at a board meeting earlier in April. She said she brought the issue forward after hearing public requests to re-examine it.
“A lot of the statements were around the religion in our Catholic schools,” Thibert said. “It’s something that permeates every classroom that we have and it’s something that parents expect when they sign up to go to a Catholic school — that they will be receiving a Catholic education in Alberta.
“When we have a Catholic school that doesn’t have religion in it, we have a concern, as the board stated today, and we took a stand.”
“I’m not opposed to religious education or religious classes being taught,” Bergstra said. “I said perhaps there is a different way we can approach this… I stand by those statements.”
“It’s not black and white. It’s not easy. It’s not one-sided. But, at the same time, it is a concern for some students and, depending on the circumstances, do we have a policy? What is that policy? Are there exceptions?” Bergstra said. “It just merited a discussion.”
“Is there a different way to do this? To inspire rather than barter for?”
Just last month, Bergstra put forward a motion to make changes to sexual education in Alberta schools. Bergstra wanted all publicly funded schools in Alberta to focus on sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy prevention, stating a message of abstinence-only doesn’t work. She also pushed for the inclusion of the concept of consent, and an approach that is more inclusive to LGBTQ students.
Her motion was voted down April 18.
Bergstra said Monday she didn’t see the vote coming, but she will still advocate for students and still plans to run for re-election in the fall.
“I’ll remain focused on my role… My role is to continue to advocate for students and families and that’s what I’ll do.”
Trustees also butted heads on discussing issues including allowing gay-straight alliances in any Alberta school in which a student requested one (mandated by the province), and its policy surrounding transgender students.
“This was the latest in a string of confrontations that took place over the last few months,” Education Minister David Eggen said. “It’s unfortunate but certainly we’re looking to the next round of municipal elections for people to make choices about who they want to represent them in Edmonton Catholic.”
Last year, an independent report appointed by the education minister found Edmonton Catholic School Board trustees were confused about their governance role and “made it up” as they went along.
“Interpersonal conflict is evident among the board members and between trustees and the administration,” observer Donald Cummings wrote in his report.
“It affects every aspect of the current government style, is culturally embedded in the behaviours of the board and is largely [currently] intractable.”
After attending more than 40 meetings and doing interviews with both trustees and administrative staff, Cummings concluded the board required strong third-party mediation to remedy a number of problems.
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