By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

Marilyn Bergstra has been removed as vice-chair of the Edmonton Catholic school board, and trustee Patricia Grell has been reprimanded, over controversial statements regarding the religious requirements for a student’s commencement ceremony.

“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,” board chair Laura Thibert said in a statement during the May 1 special board meeting.

“To publicly advocate against religious education as part of our mandate is blatantly opposed to the oath we took and disrespectful to all our stakeholders.”

Bergstra, who attended the special board meeting, was also removed as the board’s representative on the Alberta School Boards Association. The school district said the board’s move may be unprecedented.

The board’s actions come after comments over a Grade 12 student at St. Joseph High School who worried last week that he might not be able to attend his commencement ceremony. He didn’t have the required nine religion credits, but will still graduate because religion credits are not a provincial requirement.

The reprimanded trustees defend their actions, saying the board acted too quickly.

“I don’t think anything in what I am doing shows that either I’m disengaged or not Catholic in any way,  because everything I am doing is to advance the health and well-being of kids,” Bergstra said tearfully.

“How is that not Christian?”

Grell said she’s “disappointed” in the board’s decision, adding she supports Catholic education but wants parents to decide if their kids should attend religion classes.

“If you’re going to a Catholic school, it’s understood you’re taking religion,” said Grell, who couldn’t attend the May 1 board meeting due to a scheduling conflict.

“(But) I think it should be optional in the same way as sex education. Leave it to the parents to decide, rather than having the school be the bad guy. This is a bad way of encouraging people to be interested in learning more about the Catholic faith.”

But Thibert said religion courses are fundamental to a Catholic education. “It is something that permeates every classroom that we have and it’s something parents expect when they sign up their kids to go to a Catholic school,” she said.

Bergstra said the board’s actions won’t deter her from running for re-election in Ward 76 in southwest Edmonton.

Grell, who represents Ward 71 in the west end, said she hasn’t decided yet.

A spokesman for Education Minister David Eggen said he has no plans to become involved in the board’s governance, but the minister does recognize that it’s “more than one specific situation” that led to the board’s actions.

Edmonton Catholic trustees will elect a new vice-chair when the board meets again on May 30.

View Statement from Edmonton Catholic Schools