Sarah Newton addresses the Revelstoke Board of Education

Sarah Newton addresses the Revelstoke Board of Education

Trustees respond to teachers’ passionate plea for support

Revelstoke's teachers pleas for support met with letter from school trustees

They came, they spoke, they pleaded, and for an hour, Revelstoke school trustees sat there listening, mostly silent, save for board chair Alan Chell.

Revelstoke teachers filled the board room in the basement of the Revelstoke School District building last Wednesday, there to support their colleague Sarah Newton, an elementary school teacher who wrote a passionate letter to the Board of Education in early June.

They wanted an expression of support from the board. They wanted to hear their response to Newton’s letter.

Her letter, which pre-dated the teachers’ strike that pre-maturely ended the school year, expressed her frustration over recent events in negotiations between the B.C. government and the BC Teachers Federation. It was about how she felt disrespected by the government. About her disgust at being locked out of the school during recess and lunch — times she helps struggling students — and being docked 10 per cent of her pay because of this.

Newton asked for the board to say they don’t support the government’s negotiating tactics and that it’s harming public education.

“I do feel the foundations of B.C. society have been breached and  education in our province is being undermined by the very department charged with its promotion,” she told the board at the start of their July 9 meeting.

She talked about the struggling students in her classroom that she tries to help, and how the lockout hurt them.

“When will our trustees break with protocol and stand up to the tactics that our government believes will bring resolution to the teacher dispute?” she asked in her letter.

“I’m asking you as trustees, I truly am,” she told them in person. “You have an honourable and important role. You’ve been elected. I’ve read your site about what a trustee does.”

It was Alan Chell who responded for the board. First, he apologized for not replying to Newton’s letter, saying he was tied up in negotiations and faced with media blackouts.

Then, he went into a lengthy prepared response on the roles of a trustee, the different groups they belong to and the state of negotiations. He spoke of the roles of the BC School Trustees Association, which acts as a provincial advocacy group for school trustees; and the role of the BC Public School Employers Association, the arm of trustees that served the role of employer until its board was fired a year ago and replaced by a government-appointed administrator. He explained the money available for public sector unions is set by the Treasury Board and that the hands are tied by that mandate. And he talked about where the two sides stood in negotiations.

It was a factual explanation, short on opinion. Chell explained the situation, but he didn’t address Newton’s request for a statement of support. And he was called out for it.

“Is that your response to her letter, because you haven’t answered any of the questions she had?” said Jeff Colvin, a high school teacher. “She’s saying, ‘Can you see what we’re up against? Can you feel for me?’ You haven’t said that to her yet. You said she deserved a response, and then your response is this.”

Chell replied:  “What I’m trying to say is every one of us has our channels to try to influence the state of negotiations… We are doing what we can do to influence positively the state of negotiations.”

Trustee Elmer Rorstad spoke up, saying he was upset at what was happening. A former teacher, he said he could sympathize what they’re going through.

“It tears me apart to see there are disruptions affecting everyone — parents, students, teachers, staff and even us here sitting at the table,” he said. “I have a history in the past of going through on the other side. I know the tensions involved and the emotions playing out. I hope that at the end of the day we come together and can produce the same level of education that students have had until now.”

The teachers — about 20 of whom attended the meeting — continued to address the trustees. Lida Carey said her biggest concern was how the government was ignoring multiple court decisions ordering class size and composition be re-instated into the contract with teachers.

Colleen Wall asked the trustees to “stand up for B.C. kids. We have to stand up for their education and as trustees, you are my voice.”

Jason Stevens, said he was losing his passion for the job because of the treatment he feels he receives from the government. The work he does outside the classrooms — coaching sports teams, supervising school dances, delivering a speech at graduation — isn’t acknowledged.

“I just don’t have the heart for it anymore,” he said. “The way this government is acting illegally, and the public support we get, I just can’t stand for this.”

Catherine Lavelle received an applause for her words asking for commiseration and moral support from the trustees. “That acknowledgement of how things are going down — it’s not a good situation.”

She asked trustees to break their silence, because to her, silence made it seem like they supported the government.

“It’s not about the wages, it’s about funding education the way it should be funded, and that does not fit into the economic stability plan,” she said. “As elected people, I feel it is time for you to stand up as a board. Make public — and private too — statements to the government that what they are doing is wrong.”

Jennifer Wolney, the president of the Revelstoke Teachers Association, talked about some of the challenging classrooms that teachers have to manage, bringing up statistics on class size and composition that showed that not everything in Revelstoke is as rosy as the trustees like to make out.

And, after close to an hour after hearing from teachers, after Rory Luxmoore made one more plea for a show of support, Elmer Rorstad spoke up again.

“We’re hearing you. You have our moral support,” he said. “What we do here is only a small little part. Most of the things get done behind closed doors. We’re there as your advocate and we are supportive of the best quality education.”

He then introduced a motion calling on the board to send a letter to the government and the BCTF expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of bargaining and the impact its having on negotiations. It was carried unanimously and the letter was sent out the following day, signed by Alan Chell.

“The Revelstoke Board of Education is seriously concerned about the state of bargaining and the impact the strike/lock-out has already had on our students, our staff and our community,” the letter states. “The Revelstoke Board of Education supports the BC School Trustees’ Association’s letter of June 23, 2014, which called for the parties to re-convene ongoing bargaining, mutually agree not to bargain through the media, and resolve the dispute prior to commencement of the 2014/15 school year.”