A Kelowna couple is seeking a court settlement about the lack of access to school busing due to their child being enrolled in French Immersion.
Randy and Susan Kootnekoff has filed a lawsuit against the Central Okanagan School District and Board of Education seeking damages for being denied what they argue is a constitutional right to access French Immersion education in the school district.
Prior to the lawsuit being filed on June 22, Susan Kootnekoff, a Kelowna lawyer, has appeared before the school board arguing her case as to why her child should not be excluded from school bus access for being enrolled in a French Immersion program outside of her child’s school catchment area.
The Board of Education, specifically board chair Moyra Baxter as cited in the lawsuit filing, has stated French Immersion is not a program mandated by the Ministry of Education for school districts to offer. Therefore it is referred to as a program of choice and that school busing is also not a budget requirement for the ministry, leaving school districts to find their own funding formula and service delivery model if so choosing to provide the transportation program.
The lawsuit seeks to dismiss the policy provisions which deny transportation to students because they study French Immersion and are seeking damages “deemed just and appropriate by the court” for the decision to refuse school bus transportation for their eldest child being in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights.
The lawsuit outlines a history dating back to 2021 of issues raised by the Kelowna couple involving the French Immersion program with other family children.
It notes that some pre-existing routes carrying French Immersion students were recommended for elimination, which the school board approved in March 2020, citing at the time a shortfall of $3.1. million with its busing program.
“Nowhere is it evident that the trustees had complete, or reliable information before them or considered the impact on families of terminating these bus routes,” the suit claims.
“However, they were quick to eliminate certain bus routes carrying French Immersion students, the trustees approved other school bus routes carrying French Immersion students, notably in West Kelowna.”
School District 23 policy states French Immersion is an elective, optional program, so it will only provide transportation to French Immersion students in the event a route has open seats not taken by English program catchment area students.
The Kootnekoff lawsuit contends that students accessing French Immersion is a constitutional right protected by Section 23(2) of the Charter.
The section states: “Citizens of Canada of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in English or French in Canada, have the right to have all their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in the same language.”
The provincial government and school districts contend that charter protection applies only to Francophone schools and not French Immersion programs.
Francophone schools deliver the entirety of their education in French and do not fall under the administrative oversight of a school district Board of Education.
In 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with B.C.’s sole French-language school board and awarded $6 million in damages for underfunding the system.
A favourable ruling for the Kootnekoffs would challenge the policy that French Immersion is an optional program in public schools, and for parents to have equal legal access rights to Francophone school programs for their children.
It also could raise questions going forward about the Ministry of Education’s position that school busing is not a mandated service to be funded by the province through to school districts.
Allegations made in the lawsuit have not yet been proven in court.
The school district and the board have 21 days from the date of the lawsuit filing to respond to the allegations.