A culture-based private school will build on a surplus school site in southeast Edmonton after council's executive committee agreed to the move, recommended by administration, on Monday.
The city will sell the three-acre parcel in Kiniski Gardens to the Headway School Society of Alberta for $2.5 million. The site is at the corner of 38th Street and 38th Avenue.
Public interest groups and Edmonton Public School Board oppose the city selling the site to a private entity.
The current Headway School, in Forest Heights, offers a Punjabi language course and accommodates about 370 students. Most students live in Mill Woods and spend about an hour on a bus each way.
School principal Jagwinder Singh Sidhu has been working for years to secure a site closer to the community. Many parents have said the current location is too far from home and they would like to have "something cultural," Sidhu said Monday.
He said the executive committee's decision is a victory for immigrant families looking to preserve their heritage and language.
"I feel good today, I feel good," Sidhu told CBC News. "I finally feel like I'm being treated like 100 per cent Canadian."
He said the Punjabi language component of the school helps preserve language, noting that third generation immigrants lose 70 per cent of their language.
The site was assembled in 1992 for a public elementary school but Edmonton Public Schools declared it surplus in 2009.
Neither the Catholic nor francophone school boards wanted to use the land, so it reverted to the city.
Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton public school board, spoke to the committee Monday, opposing the land sale to a private school.
"This will impact Edmonton Public and our ability to offer what is important programming, important diverse programming within the public system, within the public setting — accessible to everyone," Estabrooks said.
She said she acknowledges the right for private schools to exist. "What I take great exception to," she added, "is private schools receiving public money to operate when in fact they're not open and accessible to the entire public."
Students attending private schools make up 5.5 per cent of the province's student population and receive 3.5 per cent of the education budget, according to figures from Alberta Education.
Private schools receive 70 per cent of the base funding provided to all public schools, based on enrolment, and do not receive infrastructure funding to build schools, said Justin Marshall, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
"This funding approach has been in place for over a decade," Marshall said in an email. The public school system receives approximately $7.2 billion in operational funding while private schools receive $294 million, he added.
Estabrooks said the site could be used for a variety of purposes "for the greater purpose of serving all citizens, rather than a select few."
Small businesses, seniors or community groups could use the land, she suggested.
Sidhu believes the Edmonton Public Schools perspective is undemocratic.
"They don't want competition, they don't want choice," he argued. "When you only have one party or one institution or one of anything delivering those things, I call it communistic."
He said the new school could double as a place for community events and sports like basketball and volleyball.
Joint use deal
The land sale is governed by a joint use agreement between the city and school boards, which guides how sites are planned, developed and maintained for school and park purposes.
It also provides the framework for decision making related to surplus reserve and non-reserve sites and reserve accounts, the city says.
Mayor Don Iveson said he understands the school board's concern about the use of surplus school sites.
"If the question of them all becoming private schools from a competition standpoint is a real question to them then I think we've got to settle that to the satisfaction of both parties to be able to mobilize the lands for highest and best use."
Coun. Scott McKeen also recognized the tension of the public versus private argument.
"This, to me, is a complex clash of values, some of which are occurring in my head right now as I speak," McKeen said during the meeting. "But I don't feel that I have a comfortable position to stand on to oppose this."
Chris Hodgson, the city's branch manager of real estate, said the department is working on an updated strategy on surplus school sites.
The Headway School has three years from the March 1, 2021 closing date of the sale to build the new structure.