Top court backs law barring teachers, school employees from being trustees in top court ruling

EDMONTON - The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld an Alberta law that forbids teachers and other school employees from seeking election or serving as school board trustees.

In an 8-1 ruling Friday, the country's top court found the provincial legislation does not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It dismissed an appeal from four Alberta teachers -- three of whom were serving on school boards and a fourth who wanted to seek election -- and the Alberta Teachers' Association.

One of the teachers, Ron Baier of Camrose, called the ruling ridiculous and an infringement of his right to serve as a Catholic trustee.

Baier is principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Waskatenau, part of the Lakeland Catholic School Division. For 15 years, he has been a trustee with Elk Island Catholic Separate Regional Division.

"This is a travesty of justice -- it's absurd, it's asinine, it's unbelievable," Baier said. "How can we stand for something like this?"

Another of the four, Liam McNiff of Sylvan Lake, said the ruling effectively ends his trusteeship with the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division.

McNiff, who teaches at Lacombe Composite High School in the Wolf Creek School Division, said he is disheartened by the ruling and won't seek a third term in the Oct. 15 school board elections.

"I'm disappointed because I would like to continue out the term and, in fact, I was planning to run for the next one," McNiff said.

"Both of those options are now out, at the moment, if I continue on as a teacher. My option now, if I want to run, is I can ask for leave from the board to run in September, and if elected then I would have to resign (from teaching) in October. It's not a feasible option at this point in time."

ATA president Frank Bruseker slammed the ruling, which he said robs teachers of a vital avenue of political activity.

"What it says is if you're a teacher, it's simply not financially worthwhile to give up being a teacher to go and be a trustee because trustee salaries are just not comparable," Bruseker said. The ATA will continue to lobby the government to change what it sees as "oppressive legislation," he said.

The case focused on amendments to the Local Authorities Election Act passed by the legislature in 2002 after a provincewide teachers strike.

The changes deny teachers and other school board employees the right to run for school board trustee in districts other than those in which they work. Under the amendments, any employee who is elected as a trustee in any school jurisdiction is deemed to have resigned from his or her employment.

Other Alberta legislation, which wasn't at issue before the Supreme Court, already prevents teachers and other school employees from running for office as trustees in the districts in which they work.

The amendments in question began as Bill 205, a private member's bill proposed by then St. Albert Conservative MLA Mary O'Neill, who argued the changes were needed to avoid conflicts of interest on budgets and other financial issues.

Four teachers -- Baier, McNiff, George Ollenberger and Evelyn Keith -- successfully challenged the legislation. At the time, Baier, Ollenberger and McNiff were trustees and Keith was planning a run for office.

The Alberta government won on appeal, after which the teachers appealed to the Supreme Court. They argued that the legislation violated their equality rights and interfered with their fundamental right to freedom of expression.

In delivering the Supreme Court's reasons for judgment, Justice Marshall Rothstein noted that the charter protects voting and candidacy rights, but only in relation to the House of Commons and provincial legislatures.

It is not up to the Supreme Court "to create constitutional rights in respect of a third order of government where the words of the Constitution, read in context, do not do so," he said.

Rothstein also said the teachers did not establish that excluding them from being trustees interferes with their ability to express themselves on matters relating to the education system.

The amendments "may deprive them of one particular means of expression," but "school employees may express themselves in many ways other than through running for election as, and serving as, a school trustee," Rothstein said.

He also rejected the teachers' argument that the legislation infringed on their right to equal protection and equal benefit under the law. Section 15 of the charter doesn't protect teachers or other school employees against discrimination based on their occupational status, Rothstein said.

Four judges agreed with Rothstein, while three others dismissed the appeal for different legal reasons. In a lone dissenting opinion, Justice Morris Fish held that seeking and holding office as a school trustee is a "uniquely effective" means for a person to express views on education policy. Fish found the legislation violates the charter right to freedom of expression.

"It is cold comfort indeed for school employees, who are barred from themselves serving as trustees, to be told that they nonetheless remain free to talk to those who can, or to write letters to their local newspapers," Fish said.

The Alberta Federation of Labour had intervener status in the case. President Gil McGowan said Friday the legislation at issue wasn't ever necessary.

"Our position is that effective measures to deal with conflict of interest were already in place," McGowan said.

"From our perspective, the changes were nothing more than a mean-spirited attempt at payback (for the teachers strike.) The changes were aimed at teachers but they ended up affecting all school-board workers, and they were clearly intended to stop those workers from having the ability to participate in the electoral process and flex their democratic muscles."

Alberta Education Minister Ron Liepert wasn't available for comment. But spokeswoman Shawna Cass maintained the position that the amendments were needed to reduce instances of school trustees falling into conflicts of interest.

"Having a full board consider important issues promotes good decision-making, and is in the best interests of all Albertans," Cass said.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the teachers of this province and the ATA to ensure that Albertans enjoy the best possible school system."

Edmonton Journal, Page B5, Sat Jun 30 2007
Byline: David Howell

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