Teachers say job action about diminishing resources

Special needs students suffering the most from current funding levels.

Sicamous teachers Liz Piazza

As B.C. Teachers’ Federation leaders and supporters are in Victoria, shouting “we will resist” outside the B.C. legislature, somewhat more subdued protests were occurring in the Shuswap.

A dozen or so teachers carrying signs were walking up and down Main Street in Sicamous on Monday, smiling and waving as people drive by. While they’re not shouting slogans of protest and resistance, they are not happy with the direction the province is taking when it comes to education.

A lack of funding has already led to the closure of one school in the area and, these days, the high school, Eagle River Secondary, is feeling the pinch.

“Our LRT (learning resource teacher) got cut again this year, we have less CEAs (certified education assistant) this year than we’ve ever had. I think we have five and they’re not even full time,”  says ERS math/science teacher Desiree Marshall-Peer. “We have no full-time counsellor, we have no full-time librarian. It’s beyond ridiculous the amount of services that have been cut from our schools in the last five years, let alone the last 10.”

Last week the BCTF received approval from the B.C. Labour Relations Board to escalate their job action with a three-day walkout that began Monday. The move was in response to the provincial government taking steps to legislate an end to the teachers’ job action, which began in September. Referred to as the “Education Improvement Act,” Bill 22 was introduced in the legislature on Tuesday. The bill forbids the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) from striking or declaring a strike, and imposes severe fines for doing so.

The BCTF  is currently calling on the public to support teachers and their request for a negotiated contract agreement. Bill 22 allows for a mediated solution, but within the parameters of the B.C. government’s net-zero mandate on wages for public service sector employees.

The B.C. government, including Education Minister George Abbott, has been vocally supportive of the teachers’ right to strike. But Government House Leader Rich Coleman has warned that if they don’t go back to work on Thursday, they will be breaking the law. At the same time, both Abbott and Coleman have stated they have no plans to fast-track debate on Bill 22.

BCTF president Susan Lambert has stated teachers would “not accept legislation that erodes the quality of the system.”

But in teacher Richard Simm’s eyes, the system, and how it handles special needs students, has been eroding for the past decade.

Simm, who has been working with School District #83 since 1994, runs the alternate program at Parkview Elementary. He says he’s witnessed support for special needs students being gradually chipped away since 2000. He notes he has one student who needs someone with him for the entire school day, but only receives four hours of support.

“So we have to take somebody from another position to cover the rest of his day, which means you’re sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” says Simm. “And more and more of that is happening, and there’s less and less support for the kids who really need it.”

Marshall-Peer says it’s those same kids who are more likely to fall between the cracks at the high-school level. She says they’re not receiving the proper testing at the elementary school level and, subsequently, are not being identified.

“We don’t have huge classes here in Sicamous, but that’s not the main part,” says Marshall-Peer. “It still takes a huge amount of effort to identify them, and to be able to say what exactly do I need to do to teach these students better.”

Exacerbating the situation, says Marshall-Peer, is how necessity has forced schools to use funding intended for special needs kids to meet the needs of all students.

“We have a system right now where the really special needs kids are funding the time in the classrooms for the other students,” says Marshall-Peer. “We can’t do anything about it. That’s the game every school is playing because they need to have the money to supply everyone, but the money isn’t there.”

For Simm and Marshall-Peer, the past three days pounding the pavement hasn’t been about wages, it’s been about the kids. It’s the same for Parkview teachers Liz Piazza and Karen Quinton.

“I’m not striking for money, I’m probably not going to get money and I’m losing money by being on strike,” said Quinton. “It’s about my working conditions, learning conditions for the kids.”

Approximately 300 students left school an hour early to stage their own protest Friday afternoon in Salmon Arm. They marched in front of city hall, Abbott’s office and the school district offices, carrying their own hand-made posters and signs, in a demonstration of support for teachers.

“Students are not here just for the teachers; they are here for themselves and their futures,” said student Laurel Poloway.

“Teachers are not just doing this for the money,” said student Tegan Fitzpatrick. “It’s also about things like classroom size. I also know it’s affecting us too, as students.”

Students had hoped to take their message to Abbott directly, but the Shuswap MLA wasn’t available. So they asked Salmon Arm Mayor Nancy Cooper to pass it along for them. Cooper obliged.

Harley August-Sjodin of Shuswap Middle School was one of the students who met with Cooper and was pleased she agreed to talk to the provincial government.

“I support the teachers,” he said, noting that teachers don’t have enough time to help all the students.

In her letter to Abbott, Cooper says how she was impressed with the students and how, even though they may have had placards with differing messages, they were still able to stand united.

“I think we could all learn from their example,” writes Cooper. “Mr. Abbott, I know you were once an educator as well; therefore, this must be a difficult situation for you. I ask that you listen to the youth, as they are the voice of the future.

“When individuals are strong enough to speak up for what they believe in, take different sides and protest in a peaceful manner, this is democracy at its best.”