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Faith in the system

Catholic trustees praise staff, tout 'fiscal responsibility'

Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 12/01) - Yellowknife Catholic Schools was born July 11, 1951, after considerable public debate.

There were questions, most notably raised in News of the North, about whether the Catholics needed their own school system.

There are over 1,400 students enrolled in Yellowknife's three Catholic schools: Weledeh, Ecole St. Joseph, and St. Patrick high school. The school district has come a long way since the original St. Patrick school opened its doors to 89 students in 1953.

Money was tight, and the territorial council was reluctant to invest money in a separate school system.

Yet, Yellowknife's Catholic school system quickly grew in popularity. From the 89 students who passed through St. Patrick school's doors in the fall of 1953, the number has grown to more than 1,400 today.

Despite a series of setbacks and tragedies -- the burning down of St. Pat's in 1964 was one -- the dream of a separate school system, shared by Father Frances Ebner and the board's first chair, Norman Byrne, continues to flourish.

For today's school trustees, the challenges may not be the same but they are no less difficult.

All the trustees note the strain of the district's ever growing student population. They also were about special programs, such as technical trades and fine arts, which tend to take a back seat to finding money for capital projects and paying teachers.

"At this time, I feel our growth has been stifled," says trustee chair Larry Purcka. "We're at or near capacity at all our schools, particularly in Frame Lake. I would like to see another facility built."

Purcka is the go-to guy on the board. As the chair, his job is to put a public face on Yellowknife Catholic Schools. He has been on the board four years, and its chair for the last two.

"It's much like what the mayor or anybody else does," says Purcka. "I have my little public duties, but it's also through the trustees. I have to go with the direction I'm given."

With an annual budget topping $15 million, the trustees shoulder enormous responsibility.

They receive an honorarium of $5,000 a year -- $7,000 for the chair. Most say they spend an average of four hours a week doing school board business, all the while juggling jobs, families, and other volunteer and community activities.

"Some times of the year are busier than others," says vice-chair Jane Haley. "We meet mostly evenings and weekends, and we have a monthly lunch-hour meeting."

Motivated by faith

Like other board members, Haley identifies her "volunteer background" as motivation to run for trustee. That, and a strong belief in a faith-based school system.

Over the years, Haley has also worked the NWT Council for the Disabled and the St. Patrick's parish finance committee.

"I was educated more or less in the Catholic school system," says Haley. "I like the value system that is in Catholic schools."

Finance committee chair Raymond St. Armand had two reasons to run for trustee: His children, and his knowledge of accounting.

"I wanted to get involved with my children's education," says St. Armand, who is also the general manager of Akaitcho Development Corp. "I wanted to be a part of the decisions of the Catholic school board, and I felt with my financial background, I could help them in that area if they needed it."

This year, the board announced a budget with an accumulated surplus of $933,615. All the trustees reacted modestly when asked about their good fortune.

"It is a very good time to be sitting on the board, because things are well in place," says Mary Vane, chair of the facilities committee. "I think we're academically accountable while being financially responsible."

Several said their jobs were made easier by the people on the district payroll.

"I think the credit can got to Kern (Superintendent Von Hagen) and the leadership team on his teaching staff," says trustee Nancy Gardiner. "He sees outside of the box."

If there is any complaint that some trustees expressed in their jobs, it's a lack of public interest in them.

All were acclaimed to their seats.

Trustee Debbie Ross she would have preferred if she had been elected instead being named for the board because she happened to be one of seven people who signed up.

"Elections are terrifying," says Ross. "I think all the board of trustees understand that, but I believe in elections, and that's all lost in the acclamation process."

Nonetheless, pride on the school board runs deep.

"The values and the beliefs are the attraction," says Gardiner. "I think there's a lot of respect in the schools. It's a happy place to be."