Principiis Obsta…Finem Respice
Resist the Beginning…Consider the End
When I wanted to add an item for discussion to the board agenda I realised for trustees there is no place to go. We must wander aimlessly through the agenda looking for refuge and find there none.
If you are the secretary treasurer or the superintendent you have your name in lights and your own spot. I had noticed the Victoria school board actually acknowledges the presence of trustees at the table – there is the Chairman’s Report and the two separate sections devoted to trustee reports and motions and they are quite early in the meeting almost as if trustees have some relevance to the general proceedings instead of being treated like porpoises at SeaWorld – who are fed once a day and occasionally asked to stand on their tailfins at the appropriate time. Though the Victoria agenda is not the precise template for changes I would like to see, I decided to suggest we consider modifying our agenda to include similar sections to our open and closed agendas providing all trustees with a home on our meeting agendas sometime before student travel, the good news story and adjournment. Right now – if we wish to add an item for discussion it can be wearisome to figure out where to place it and more to the point the motions trustees bring are inevitably stashed at the end of what is sometimes a three or four hour meeting cycle in ‘New Business’ (now regarded as the Agitator Ghetto or as I like to call it – the Phantom Zone). I would have liked to see trustees accorded the respect they deserve as elected representatives and have our own location to house discussion and motions much as our sec/treas and superintendent do. One of the chief responsibilities of trustees is to build improvements and responses in the school district on behalf of students, families and staff which enshrine enhancements to policy and practice. It seems unfortunate this element of our work should be a mere afterthought at the end of every meeting when we are all worn out and understandably anxious to exit the building.
I really thought there would be some enthusiasm for this rather innocent idea but it has been referred to a later time so senior staff can come up with a good reason to tell us it is:
- Against the laws of God and man
- A bad idea because it will promote trustees talking at meetings
The main event was the report on the ‘Organisation of Classes’– we do this every month but this month there was a new feature – we were treated to having a director cheerfully explain that despite everything our eyes tell us, the conditions are not as bad as the figures suggest. The tap dance of balancing the need to keep class sizes within legislation particularly in the early grades and the obvious presence of many children with challenges creates the mere optical illusion of maddening circumstances. So – if you never actually speak to a teacher or wander through a school you might think that the numbers do not signify a troubling learning environment.
There are for the record this month fully 277 classes in this district either over the class size limits or sustaining more than 3 designated kids with particular learning challenges. The report only records those who have been evaluated and pays no mind to the many students who are never reviewed for support. We have a crisis in our ability to assess students to determine needs in a timely way.
A class may have 5 kids with IEP’s(Individual Education Plan) and little or no support but the reality is there will be 5 more which should be evaluated for IEPs based on behaviour and academic challenges their teachers are already aware of and dealing with daily. Despite knowing the composition of our classes trustees are never told how many teachers disagree with the circumstances they perform under nor are we given any idea about the support these classes have in place.
This month a wrinkle appeared. Normally we are fiercely urged to accept the report and send it on to the ministry asserting we as a board agree the conditions are appropriate for student learning whatever the hell that means these days. The superintendent uncharacteristically offered trustees the option(which by the way we already have without anyone’s permission) of refusing to accept the report and have the staff return at the next meeting with improved numbers for us to send on to the ministry. Evidently we have no money and the only way the class room conditions can be enhanced is by carving funds out of other areas of the district – no doubt from operations or clerical or our little known plutonium recovery program. I am glad the trustees have refused to send this sorry situation on to the ministry with our blessing as we usually do but as we contemplate the impact of a budget which features cuts upon cuts none of this should come as a shock. I am most interested to see what sort of mayhem they plan in order to pay for more teaching and EA time – perhaps we can burn down the school district for the insurance money. I have another idea which entails achieving savings from reducing administration.
However – it is definitely time to stop arguing over Bill 33. First – it should be noted it makes perfect sense to have all language concerning classroom conditions returned to where it belongs – the collective agreement. Also – we should get rid of BCPSEA (the BC Public Service Employers Association) which is just a beard for the ministry and return bargaining to boards and their employee groups. Then – we should demand changes in the School Act which will allow communities to design their budgets to meet their expectations for ideal working and learning conditions in our schools so we can decide together what we need and how our schools should be staffed. The BCTF has a declaration still current and still relevant which demands a far more rigourous application of standards for all our kids.I am attaching it for your interest – but in short far from the meagre benchmarks the ministry has established the BCTF demands class sizes as follows:
Maximum sizes for regularly scheduled classes shall be:
- Kindergarten 15 students
- Multi-graded Primary class 15 students
- Primary single grade class (Grades 1-3) 20 students
- Intermediate classes of 2 grades 22 students
- Intermediate classes of 3 grades 17 students
- Intermediate classes of 4 grades 15 students
- Special class (including ESL) 10 students
- Secondary Humanities classes
- (English & Socials) 23 students
- Any other class (4-12) 25 students
- Any other split class (4-12) 22 students
- Shops and laboratories 20 students
God knows if we are going to fight for something, let us make it something worth fighting for rather than the industrial hodgepodge and chaos the ministry has designed.
As has been reported- our district can boast a joint advocacy letter signed on to by our employee groups and our parent group along with trustees. It is meant to tell the ministry we are treading water and going under for the third time. It would be hard hearted indeed to question this valuable venture and I don’t think there is much harm in it but I have a few concerns and would have liked to see this letter include:
- Some acknowledgment of the responsible role trustees must accept as the primary decision makers in submitting this neglectful budget
- The overwhelming counsel we received from our employee groups and aboriginal community as well as independent parent voices in the form of a substantial petition to submit a ‘needs’ or success budget rather than a compliance budget
- Our intention as a board to review our approach in the next budget cycle regarding our willingness to continue endorsing budgets which do not fulfill the requirements of our kids and staff
Why did our senior staff not sign on to this letter bemoaning the state of funding in public education? Don’t they care about the downward slide of the system they serve?
Their support would be meaningful coming as it would from those who have the most influential voice. Apparently they cried off – not wishing to appear to be ‘political’ – well that is just so much balloon juice. We should have placed due pressure on them to stand with us. They continue to play an activist function in the agenda of the province and the ministry which is neither moderate nor neutral but highly political and highly ideological.
A joint advocacy letter is fine but:
We remind our partners all the time and rightfully so that whatever recommendations may arrive at the board from a committee the board has the final say; so all the good advice from our partners can safely be ignored and certainly was in this instance.
When we appear to stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners after we have endorsed budgets which we know will produce cuts and deteriorations in our schools we should remember this decision was ours and ours alone.
Our partners should look to us for more; we are not victims along with them – we have some greater ability to influence this and we should exercise it. We are as trustees in the middle – we stand between our community and the government –boards may decide we are agents of the government and illustrate this by passing austerity budgets which harm our kids’ opportunities or we can do otherwise and refuse to pass these dreadful budgets on principle. It is a bit disingenuous to grieve after the fact along with our partners as if we too have no choice when we do have a choice.
Our partners are very generous to ally with us knowing as they do that despite their best efforts to support us in doing the right thing we failed to do that right thing. The outcome was entirely predictable.
The question will remain – what will we do now and next spring in light of our joint efforts and experience.
Your Trustee Pal,