Heritage Park students protest teacher layoffs
By Neil Corbett
"Bring Back Books!"
"Save Our Schools!"
"Wasn't Durieu Enough?"
Those were some of the slogans on the signs high school student protestors held up as they demonstrated outside of Heritage Park Secondary on Thursday when classes ended for the day.
They were protesting cutbacks in education, and rally organizers Clinton Large and Kylie Harmatuik said it was the prospect of losing eight Heritage teachers that most struck a chord with the students.
Large explained that all teachers at the school without eight years of seniority were given layoff notices. Many will be hired back, but in the meantime they have no job security.
"They are some of the best teachers in our school," said Harmatuik. "They're phenomenal."
The protestors received many honks of support from passing motorists, some adults grabbed a sign and joined the protest, and Large got the message across with a bullhorn, barking slogans like" "When I say teachers, you say stay!"
They highlighted a serious issue in the Mission School District this year. Mike Trask, the bargaining chair for the Mission Teachers' Union, said approximately 130 teachers across the district have been given layoff notices this year. Many, he concedes, will be hired back.
However, in the past a teacher with even five years of seniority could reasonably expect their job would never be hit by the budget axe.
"These students are right in saying there will be a lot of dislocation or relocation around the district," said Trask.
"It's a very, very uncertain time for teachers."
There are three factors impacting educators, Trask explained:
- Grade 7 classes will be shifted from elementary schools to the three secondary buildings for next year, as the district creates a middle school stream within the high school buildings.
- Vice-principals are being asked to spend more time in the classroom, displacing teachers.
- Enrollment is still in decline, by an estimated 100 students for next year.
Many teachers will be shuffled to different positions in the district, and he estimated that a "couple dozen" will lose their jobs.
He said some who have been given layoff notices will find jobs in other communities, rather than live with the uncertainty in the Mission district.
Trask said it is touching to hear student support for the Heritage teachers.
"Teaching is all about the relationships you build," he said.
District superintendent Frank Dunham said there are staff changes every year, in every district in the province, as impacted by enrolment and government funding.
He said having vice-principals in classrooms is being done as a budget saving.
The restructuring involving Grade 7 students created more layoff notices than usual.
"That creates anxiety until the process sorts itself out," he said. "We're very positive about our ability to retain staff."
Dunham estimated the total reduction in staff may be as small as 12 teachers.
He denied that the student protest is embarrassing for the district.
"We want them to become critical thinkers, and future participants in our democratic society," said Dunham.
Large, Harmatuik and four other students attended the school district's budget consultation meeting last Monday, and posed some tough questions to school district staff. They wanted to know why the district is still facing budget cutbacks – even after closing four elementary schools in the past three years to generate budget savings, including Durieu Elementary this year. Large said there was no satisfactory answer.
"They're really good at working around a question," observed Harmatuik.
Large said it is important for students to say "enough is enough."
Dunham wanted to reassure parents that the present disruption will be worthwhile.
"It's going to be positive in terms of creating better structures for student learning," he said.
"These are challenging times for all school districts, but everyone continues to do the best they can for kids."