Saskatchewan court sides with Catholic school division in funding dispute

Canadian Catholic News report with files from Catholic Saskatoon News and Grandin Media

The Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association (SCSBA)  is “relieved, reassured and grateful” in the wake of the unanimous decision March 25, 2020 to overturn a 2017 court ruling saying that the province could not fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools.

“This ruling confirms what we have said and believed all along: parents know what is best for their children and they should be able to choose Catholic, faith-based education if that is what they want – no matter their reasons, faith backgrounds or traditions,” said Tom Fortosky, Executive Director of the SCSBA in a statement the about the resolution to the Theodore court case.

The ruling by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overturns the previous decision made by Judge Donald Layh, which held that the province did not have the legal right to provide funding for non-Catholic students at Catholic schools.

Background information on the Theodore case can be found at OpenCatholicEducation.ca

“I am sure you are as relieved by and grateful for this decision as I am,” Diane Boyko, board chair of Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, wrote to parents after the unanimous decision was announced. “A significant amount of time and money has been spent on this court case, and we are hopeful that we can all refocus our energy and resources on our students and families to build upon the exemplary model of education we have in this province.”

At the same time, Boyko noted that Good Spirit (Public) School Division does have an option to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to consider an appeal of this most recent decision.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Serena Shaw, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association which had intervenor status in the case, as Alberta has similar constitutional legislation as Saskatchewan when it comes to separate schools. “It’s really good news for the Saskatchewan school board and the Saskatchewan government…. they’ll get to continue educating they way they were and being funded for the students they are educating, regardless of their faith.”

The court case dates back to 2005 when the York School Division (now Good Spirit) filed a complaint against what is now Christ the Teacher School Division.

The Catholic division was created after the public school was closed in the town of Theodore in central Saskatchewan. due to a lack of enrolment. Its 42 students were to be bused 17 kilometres to a school in Springside until local parents rallied to save the school by making it part of the Catholic system, renaming it St. Theodore Roman Catholic School.

The public board argued Catholics make up a small proportion of the school population and that the mandate of Catholic education should be limited to educating only Catholic students.

The case was heard in a Yorkton courtroom in 2015, pitting the public board against its Catholic counterpart and the provincial government. After Layh’s decision in favour of the public board, the Saskatchewan Party government of then-Premier Brad Wall sided with the Catholic board, and the province invoked the notwithstanding clause, which allows the status quo to stand for five years.

An appeal on Layh’s decision was heard in 2019, with the unanimous decision in favour of the Catholic school board position delivered this week.

Saskatchewan is one of only three provinces where Catholic education rights are enshrined in the constitution, along with Ontario and Alberta.

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