School board shifts timing of public input sessions

A new policy that will rule out opportunities for partner groups to make public presentations before discussions begin in School District 57 public meetings raised the anger of teachers, parents and school support staff.

They made it known to trustees and the rest of the board at Tuesday’s public meeting they object to having their concerns not being heard in a public forum and criticized the board for going against its own principles of accountability and transparency.

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Traditionally, the PGDTA, CUPE Local 3742 (which represents nearly 1,000 school support staff), and the Prince George District Advisory Council, among other groups, have been given a five-minute opportunity to speak to the board at the meetings before any agenda items are discussed by the board.  As a result of policy changes put forth by the board in its new policy manual , those partner groups will have to make special requests to speak at to the board in its monthly public meetings after all agenda items have been dealt with by the board.

Joanne Hapke, president of the Prince George District Teachers Association, said the PGTDA will have the chance to provide feedback to the board at advisory council meetings but teachers will lose their ability at board meetings to present issues deserving of public scrutiny.

“I’m disappointed that the board has chosen to remove the opportunity for partner groups to make a presentation at each scheduled public meeting,” said Hapke.

“Yes, we will have the opportunity to give feedback at the advisory committee meetings that will occur once a month, but what will be missing is the public response. By having our voice only at the (advisory) committee level, where the public is not part of it, it stays with that committee and there is no opportunity for it to go elsewhere.

 “They’re going to be making decisions and a month or three weeks later we’ll be able to say to them in an official capacity, we disagree. It’s too late.”

Hapke told trustees that a presentation at the January board meeting made by PGDTA first vice-president Daryl Beauregard in which he spoke about the severity of the teacher shortage and how it was impacting district schools unable to fill those positions, as reported in The Citizen, had a far-reaching impact.

“This news story caused the concern of the actual teacher shortage in this district to become news provincially, and the (education) minister had to address it,” said Hapke.  “I am unaware if he provided a solution to his crisis yet, but he cannot deny having knowledge of what it occurring in our district. This is a good result that can come from when we are given a voice at (school board) meetings.”

Hapke warned trustees. “You’re actually denying yourselves access to information that could play a big part in your final decisions.”

The new policy provides an opportunity for partner groups to meet with trustees and the SD 57 superintendent and secretary-treasurer as part of the advisory committee on the first Tuesday of each month, with public board meetings to follow on the last Tuesday of each month.

Trustee Sharel Warrington said the board welcomes feedback from partner groups and the board meetings will still allow them that opportunity in the public input sessions.

“The board has done all the work that’s gone into this policy manual and it was decided we would try to bring  the voice of our partner groups in after the meeting has concluded and the partner groups would have an opportunity to express their thoughts about what we did at that meeting,” said Warrington.

“It’s not as though they’re being denied the opportunity to present their views, it’s just when they have the opportunity to do that. The board is responsible for making its decisions based on a range of information that it receives. While the partner groups do provide us with their thoughts and they do have some influence, ultimately it’s the board that makes its decision how it’s going to proceed. Whether they speak to us at the beginning of the meeting or the end of the meeting, we still are honouring their voice.”  

CUPE Local 3742 president Karen Wong is concerned that shifting public input to the end of board meetings will restrict the union’s opportunities to speak face-to-face with trustees on issues that have a direct effect on school employees and will stifle collaboration with the board before votes are taken. Wong is also concerned the union won’t be given the opportunity to react to agenda issues added in the three weeks leading up to public meetings.

“Comments after votes and motions have been passed, that happens too late in the meeting to make an impact on decision-making,” said Wong. “The partner groups have a better target to maintain five minutes at the beginning of the meeting, but restricting presentation to the topic would be much more effective. It would allow for information to be shared before (trustees) make the decisions.

“Presenting CUPE messages of support at the end of the meeting does not allow for (trustees) to make responsible decisions that affect CUPE members.”

The pending change in the policy was not made known to the partner groups until Friday and that did not sit well with Andrea Beckett, chair of the Prince George District Parent Advisory Council.

“The parents and the children are the biggest voice at the table that represents all the schools, all the PACs, all the concerns that parents bring forward, so to change the public input means that voice is lost,” said Beckett. “The whole purpose of the board of education is to do what’s in the best interest of the children and the schools and we represent a large chunk of that voice. Trust, transparency and accountability is really important in public institutions and education and this does not promote that in any way.

“The trustees take turns coming to our DPAC meetings every month but that doesn’t allow for the media or the public to hear those discussions. Our meetings are open but the public tends to attend the board meetings. Their comments are in the agenda packages and in public record printed permanently and we lose that.”

Following the lead of other school districts in the province, SD 57 began the policy overhaul in July and most of the work was done by December before interim superintendent Rod Allen returned to his home on Vancouver Island. He tackled a similar project before he retired last spring as superintendent of the Cowichan Valley school district. The manual outlines board duties and separates the tasks of trustees from operational work handled by district staff.

The board introduced its 90-page draft policy manual which identifies 22 policies and its administrative procedures  but put aside discussion of the new manual after Hapke informed the board the teachers collective agreement requires at least 14 days notice before any policy changes can be introduced. That scuttled the board’s plan to approve the policy manual in principle to start a 60-day consultation period.

“We’re not opposed to change but when it happens in silos it’s unfortunate, and that’s what they’re missing out on is the perspective and knowledge or what needs to happen and what is actually occurring,” said Hapke.

 

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