Three school board trustees who are against a two-week spring break held fast to their vote Tuesday night (April 28).
Trustees Heather Maahs, Barry Neufeld and Darrell Furgason have now twice rejected a calendar decision made by an arbitrator back in February. The trio of trustees are usually in the minority on the board, and often vote in lockstep. But with two of seven trustees sitting out on the decision due to potential conflict of interests, (Willow Reichelt and David Swankey are both married to teachers) that only left trustees Dan Coulter and Jared Mumford at the table.
The discussion, held via Zoom and streamed live to those who registered, became heated at times, with trustees tossing out insinuations about intentions.
While the three trustees have stated that their decision isn’t about the unions, they have been speaking critically about the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association, with Furgason even saying several times on Tuesday night that “they should stay on the job.”
There has been no related job action to the ongoing calendar dispute, and it’s common practice for Chilliwack to have a two-week spring break.
He added that the board needs to “stand up for the children.”
“We were not elected by unions, we were elected by parents,” he stated. School board elections are done on the same day, on the ballot, as municipal elections and are open to all eligible voters.
Neufeld spoke directly against Coulter in his own comments.
“You are a strong member of the CUPE union and whatever you say should be taken with a grain of salt,” he said. CUPE does not have a say locally in the school calendar, as a member of the public pointed out in the group chat that went along with the public, online meeting. CUPE members also don’t get paid for hours not worked, so a two-week break is a financial hardship for them.
Neufeld also noted that the needs of employee groups come second to the needs of students and families. However, the B.C. School Act mandates (article 87.01.7) that parents of students as well as employees should be consulted on calendars.
Coulter said that their meetings was not the time to “denigrate fellow trustees.”
But, he also added, “the disdain and hate for unions, and arbitrators, and labour law is dripping from some people, and this is to the detriment of the board. We’re going to end up paying money for this. And we are just going to come back to this, we are going to have to do this, and we are going to be paying for this out of our nose.”
It’s unclear what will happen next, as the arbitrator’s decision is considered binding. There was some talk of going to court, and who would shoulder the costs of that. Some trustees said they believe that the BCPSEA (BC Public School Employers Association) would pay for the legal fees, but the district’s secretary treasurer Gerry Slykhuis said that wasn’t a sure thing.
“I don’t care if it’s a binding arbitration, this will come out of BCPSEA funds to appeal this decision,” Neufeld said. Maahs added that she heard from BCPSEA members who are “sick of this nonsense.”
Even if BCPSEA did pay court costs, they don’t pay any damages. That would fall to the Chilliwack School District, which keeps a small legal fund.
Maahs said with the loss of school time this year due to COVID-19, they should take this chance to limit time away from school in the next calendar year.
“Her ruling must be challenged, we cannot simply comply when we know it is an error,” she says. “With the current unknown situation going into this year, it would absolutely negligent for us to agree to a two-week break.”
When there is a two-week break, the school days are several minutes longer to make up for the lost classroom time.
While there was a small time frame to appeal the decision, that ended 14 days from Feb. 28.
One thing that is clear is that time is running out for the board. The submission of a calendar is mandated under the B.C. School Act, which states that “a board must submit to the minister a school calendar prepared under subsection (2) at least three months before the expiration of the current school calendar unless the board has made available to the public a school calendar under subsection (9) for the next school calendar year.”
The act does not state a consequence for not submitting a calendar.
The arbitrator was called in this year because of a new part of the collective agreement, which calls for arbitration if the two parties can’t come to a conclusion. That was decided earlier this year, as part of a settlement from when the board broke the collective agreement in 2017.
Trustee Jared Mumford argued that they should accept the arbitrator’s decision because they agreed to use one, and that they should work harder next year to make their case.
“We agreed to this, as a school board,” he said. “If we didn’t present enough evidence to the arbitrator to have this pass, then next time we present more evidence.”
The next school board meeting is May 12 at 7 p.m., and will likely be held in an online format again. Registration is required to view the meetings in real time and take part in public participation periods, but the videos are also posted to the Chilliwack School District’s YouTube channel the following day.