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Merger of schools didn't have a prayer

Religious institution balks at move to tiny public facility

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It would have been an unprecedented move to try to save the province's smallest public school.

The Sunrise School Division was prepared to enrol the 31 students from a faith-based private school into Reynolds Community School in Prawda -- and somehow accommodate their faith within a public school.

Riverside School in Elma is one of 35 non-funded independent schools in Manitoba -- schools of seven to 88 students so averse to outside influences on 1,202 of their children they won't accept any public funding.

Negotiations with Riverside went very well, but eventually Riverside decided against it, said Sunrise superintendent Wayne Leckie.

"Predominantly, for religious reasons, they declined. They said their forefathers had set up the independent school for a reason," Leckie said.

Staff at Riverside School did not answer the phone during numerous attempts to reach the school. The phone did not go to voice mail, and the school apparently does not have a website.

Leckie said Sunrise and the RM of Reynolds have been exploring every idea they can come up with to save Reynolds Community School, which expects to have seven to nine students in September.

"There's been no discussion about closing the school," Leckie said.

Reynolds Community School, just off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Whiteshell Provincial Park, has four classrooms, a big library, a computer room and a decent-sized gym, along with an outdoor area that would be the envy of many schools. It had 84 students in the late '90s.

"We presented to the independent school that (the Riverside students) would enrol at Reynolds, and the funding would follow," with the 31 children becoming public school students and covered by provincial per-student grants, he said.

Riverside had students in grades 2 to 9 this past year, while the nine students in Reynolds were in some of the grades from kindergarten to Grade 6.

Leckie pointed out the Public Schools Act does allow for religious exercises in public schools, if a specified number of parents petitions the school division. However, those exercises are limited to opening exercises and before the start of the regular school day.

Religious content throughout the school day that is expected and normal in faith-based schools would be problematic in secular public schools.

Leckie was uncertain whether Reynolds could have accommodated the level of religion that makes up a significant part of a regular school day in a faith-based independent school.

"Perhaps we wouldn't be able to accommodate everything they wanted from a faith perspective," he said.

"They can't have it both ways," deputy education minister Gerald Farthing warned. "It's fallen apart because they know full well what it means to be a public school."

Students can't receive full provincial funding within a public school, while the school operates as a faith-based school, Farthing said. "We'd like to see the empty space used... not under unacceptable conditions," he said.

There are numerous empty public schools around the province private schools have bought or leased, but there are no examples of a funded independent school sharing a building in any way with a public school, said Robert Praznik, board chairman for the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools.

Non-funded independent schools are not members of MFIS, said Praznik.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 A2

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