PORT HARDY—Unsurprisingly, there was a fairly conspicuous elephant in the room as School District 85’s Board of Education reconvened for its first meeting of the new school year earlier this week.
The ongoing dispute between the teachers and government dominated proceedings as the Board met in the School Board office Monday.
DPAC representative Amanda Jorgenson told the Board that she had fielded “a lot of phone calls in the last couple of weeks” from parents frustrated by the situation and complaining about a lack of information. One concern she repeatedly heard was from parents of high school students worried that time lost from the classroom would affected their children’s graduation.
“I sympathize with you,” said Chair Leighton Wishart. “Unfortunately we don’t have any answers either. We’re getting the same information through the conference calls that you’re hearing through the media.”
“Everyone is in the same boat,” said Superintendent Scott Benwell. “We are only really four days in; we can make that up in very short order. I share the concern, teachers share the concern, everyone’s concerned about that. But I think that at this point we need to remain realistic that right now if we split the semesters we’ve only lost two days per semester. That is not a catastrophic place to be. Now, if next Board meeting we’re having this conversation, that’s significant… that won’t be solved here at SD85; that length of time would be solved provincially.”
Wishart shared a series of correspondence from the Board to the Premier, Ministry of Education and BCTF sent between June and August.
In the letters, the Board expresses dismay at the lack of progress in talks and urges both sides to “negotiate in good faith toward a settlement that honours teachers as the professionals they are, and provides the province with stability and the opportunity to enhance the reputation and effectiveness of our educational system.”
The Board also criticized the government’s plan to provide $40 per day to parents, noting that school boards were not consulted on the plan and expressing disappointment that education dollars were being diverted to fund tutoring.
VINTA President Shawn Gough said he was “disgusted” by the Premier’s response to the trustees, an Aug. 12 letter in which she says, “Labour negotiations can be difficult, and I understand that this current dispute involving our province’s teachers has impacted so many people. As I have said, we need to focus on getting a long-term agreement in place in order to bring stability into our education system – for school districts, parents and students.
“As you know, the talks have now resumed and this is very encouraging.”
“I think it’s time that you wrote back and said ‘Thank you for your response Miss Clarke, but we need more’,” said Gough. “There’s nothing in there.”
He also noted rumours circulating around the date of Sept. 23 and government plans to use the current crisis to force through education reforms. “At this point it seems to be rumour,” he noted, “but when it comes to something that negative and Christy it would tend to have a little weight to it.”
Secretary-Treasurer John Martin shared a memo from the Ministry of Education on strike savings which seems to be laying the groundwork for the government to recover a larger portion of savings from school districts.
“I found it an interesting letter,” he said. “I’m not sure what the plan is from the ministry but, as you may recall from May and June, they recovered 80 per cent of actual teacher salaries that were saved and that was all they recovered. It looks like they’re going to be trying to recover all of the savings.”
“It’s quite unfortunate,” he added.
“It is,” agreed Wishart. “We can put the money to better use than they can.”
Martin also asked for approval for financial statements for June, July and August, which included some clawbacks due to the strike action at the end of the last school year.
“If you look at the statements, the bottom line is that the school district has an increase in its fund balance of $100,000. We had anticipated a decrease of $200,000 so we’re $300,000 better off than we had expected and the only reason for that is the teachers’ strike. It was quite a significant savings… It’s not something to celebrate; we’re certainly not celebrating the fact that we didn’t have to decrease our fund budget as we had budgeted, and in fact we’ve added $100,000 to it. But in terms of our long-term plan it certainly means fewer cutbacks over the next five to six years. The line of the cutbacks is not quite as steep. We still have to make them, we still have to get to that base funding, but it’s a little more gradual.”
Looking forward though, the threat of a full savings recovery by the government had less of a silver lining.
“It concerns me what’s going to happen with the September savings, because I don’t see an upside,” said Martin.
“(It’s) nice to have the extra cash,” said Wishart, “but we’d rather have the teachers back in school.”
Trustees received an update on the heating upgrade at NISS, which will recycle waste heat from the ice arena and use it to heat the high school.
“I think this next item is one I’d characterize as a good-news story,” said Martin.
Darby Gildersleeve, Manager of Operations and Maintenance, told the Board that the project was nearing completion, with an estimated two weeks of work left. “The plan is to take heated liquid used from exhausted heat used for making ice at the arena and send it across the field to heat pumps which will send the liquid throughout the school,” he said.
Martin told the board that the project was coming in virtually on budget. “My understanding is that we’re looking at $20,000 in extras on a $1.5m project, so it’s well within the contingency amounts we set aside for extras.”
Trustees asked about the feasibility of adapting the design to similar projects at other schools. “It’s possible,” said Gildersleeve. “In Hardy we have an ice arena that’s beside two schools essentially, closest to Eagle View. We would have to have a discussion with the District of Port Hardy instead of the Regional District. It’s very possible, and there’s also an ice arena not that far from (Sea View, in Port Alice).”
“Something to think about for sure in the future,” said Wishart.