Parents, teachers voice concerns at final school board meeting

A large turnout at the final School District 20 board meeting forced the board to answer some tough questions.

A large turnout at the final School District 20 board meeting forced the board to answer some tough questions and change the venue to accommodate the vocal crowd.

Over 25 SD20 teachers and parents were on hand Monday at the Kootenay-Columbia Learning Centre in Trail, hoping to have their questions answered and thoughts heard.

One of the main points of contention at the meeting was the board’s lack of an appearance of support for striking teachers.

At the meeting, Andy Davidoff, president of the Kootenay-Columbia Teachers’ Union, wanted to know why it took so long for the board and senior management of the district to show outward support for the teachers currently engaged in legal job action.

“We appreciate [the letter] on the board’s agenda,” he said, addressing the board. “What we cannot appreciate is that it took unbelievable pressure on this board by the public, the teachers, and everyone else for the board to even look at writing a letter.  We honestly believe this is an afterthought that this board has taken this long to do this. We appreciate that you have finally arrived at a place where the letter is important, but not saying that we didn’t have the time to write a letter is a little frustrating for us to hear.”

The details of the letter, drafted in the moments before the meeting commenced, will address the concerns the SD20 school board has with a lack of bargaining, what the trustees sitting on the board would need from the provincial government – namely more funding – and asks the different groups involved to restart face-to-face bargaining, appoint a mediator for future talks and keep the bargaining out of the media.

Sasha Lesonen, a Teacher Teaching On Call, wanted to know when the letter was going to be sent out and expressed a need for more open communication between the board and the teachers in the district.

“I would hope that moving forward that this board would send their letter in a timely manner and make an effort to come to the schools and find out what is happening,” she said during the question and answer period of the evening meeting. “I know the summer has just started, but I want to see more communication happen and open communication be a key in this issue.

“Since this is last meeting before the summer happens and you aren’t meeting again until September, when is that letter going to go out?”

Darrell Ganzert, chair trustee of the board, assured the crowd of concerned teachers, a final draft of the letter would be sent to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, the Minister of Education and the British Columbia Teachers College by the end of this week.

Many in the crowd were wondering why the board and upper management made the decision to take away the teachers’ keys to all school buildings at the start of the job action and, as Davidoff pointed out, was the only school board he knew of that had chosen to take that action calling the move, “highly demoralizing, unprecedented and disrespectful.”

The question was directed to Greg Luterbach, superintendent of schools, to answer.

“This was a decision made by me,” he said. “[The keys were taken] due to the uncertainty of the length of the strike. The last time [there was a strike], it was three days. There was a start date and a legislated end date. There was no debate on how long it was going to go for. This time, it is open ended. We have no CUPE support staff members cleaning buildings or to respond to issues in an emergency. We needed to minimize access to the buildings.”

It seemed Davidoff was not satisfied with the answer he received.

“Some of our members have been a part of this school board for over 40 years,” he responded. “Nobody can ever remember getting their keys taken away over past job actions, long term medical leaves or for any reason whatsoever except when someone retires or leaves the district. So, I won’t ask again. I will comment. This was incredibly demoralizing and incredibly disrespectful.”

Ten per cent pay cuts were also on the minds of teachers attending the board meeting and Cindy Fry, a teacher in SD20, says the cuts were hurtful.

“You are my employer and that is a relationship I take very seriously,” she said to the panel of trustees. “I just completed my 30th year of teaching in this district. I have held up my part of that relationship and to have my pay cut by 10 per cent by you? I started work on the 15th of August this year. I worked for 50 hours before students even arrived. That’s typical. I didn’t hear a word from any of you to protest what was done to me with my pay cut. It was very very hurtful.”

As a way of explanation, Luterbach says the cuts were done to make sure there were no issues in the future with having to dial back pay that would have already been paid out.

“We looked at the situation and we were careful not to overpay people and have to claw back,” he said. “At that time, it was the reality. Choices were made. People were not working either on rotating strikes and then on an anticipated full withdrawal of service, we paid people accordingly to what they had worked as of that day.”

J.L. Crowe teacher Terry Jones wanted to know what the board was going to do about their lack of funding and buildings that were falling apart.

“Look at [J.L. Crowe],” he said. “It is a brand new school, only five years old and our lawns are ridiculous. Stuff is breaking down. These are just examples of underfunding. What has this board done over the last three years about underfunding? Why are we fighting the fight? We elect you to represent us and to represent students and I am not seeing it. I am not seeing it from you guys. None of you visited us on the picket line. It’s disheartening and disrespectful. What have you done and what you can do? I don’t mind fighting the fight for our students but I do wonder why we are the only ones who are.”

After applause form the crowd for Jones’ comments died down, Ganzert responded.

“It is inaccurate to portray the board as doing nothing,” he said. “The board has continually written to the ministry asking for increased funding for education. We have sent motions to our AGM on that basis. Eighty to 90 per cent of the motions at the AGM are on increased funding. It may not be what you wished for but it is not correct to say that we have done nothing.”

Ganzert agreed with Jones about the state of schools in the district and says the current condition of the buildings comes from decisions on funding cuts they can’t avoid.

“You are absolutely right,” he said. “When kids enter a school that is well maintained, their academic standards increase. We have made a conscious decision that when we are faced with cuts, to make those cuts as far away from the classroom as possible and sadly, that is our buildings. It is a reality that we face.”

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation began its strike on June 17 with teachers picketing until what would have been the last day of classes on June 27. The future of talks is unclear and it is unknown whether there will be school in September.

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