Skeena Middle School students walked out of their classrooms May 1 in protest against staffing changes announced by SD 82. (Brittany Gervais photo)

Kermode Friendship Society, parents taking school principal demotions to province

Minister of Education says staff are reviewing concerns

Kermode Friendship Society (KFS) is putting pressure on Coast Mountains School District and superintendent Katherine McIntosh for a transparent explanation as to why three administrators are being demoted to classroom positions this fall.

But they’re not waiting for the school district to give them an explanation — they’re going straight to the Ministry of Education.

KFS feels the school district did not consider how key stakeholders felt about the changes despite a number of political agreements made between the school district and First Nation communities.

“We have a voice in matters that affect our kids,” says KFS executive director Cal Albright. “Our kids struggle because some of us are traumatized people. We struggle, and our children struggle. That’s why we have an Aboriginal focus on education so we can get the support we need to make sure our kids are successful.”

On May 14, KFS held a meeting with around 40 parents and other concerned community members at the society’s daycare centre on Park Avenue to discuss an action plan aimed at convincing the district to keep Suwilaawk’s principal Pam Kawinksy, Skeena Middle School principal Phillip Barron and vice-principal Cory Killoran in their current positions. All three administrators have held leadership roles in their respective schools for around eight years each.

But superintendent Katherine McIntosh says the board of education and the school district took into account all relevant factors prior to finalizing leadership staffing changes.

“The Board of Education and School District have full confidence that the recent local appointees to leadership positions will bring a wealth of knowledge with them that will be a significant benefit to the schools they are appointed to and to the students of those schools,” McIntosh wrote in an email to the Terrace Standard. She added the exact reason for the change “requires the confidentiality and privacy be respected of all staff involved or impacted.

“The Board of Education and School District recognize that students and parents may be disappointed in the staffing changes being made for the 2019/2020 school year. We are confident that the administrators who have chosen to return to the classroom will continue to make a very positive impact for students and families in their school community through the close work within their classrooms.”

READ MORE: ‘Save our principals’: Terrace students stage walkout at school district office over staffing changes

The BC Teachers Federation president Mike Wen also said he asked McIntosh in a meeting if the school district considered the reactions of the public, teachers and students when making this decision.

“I was frank as I could be without getting into specifics, just how difficult it is for people. How teachers and principals are both concerned about each other’s welfare in this situation…And well, you know, [McIntosh said] ‘the shuffle of principals on a regular basis…’” Wen says, referring to an earlier statement provided by SD 82.

Two letters have since been written by Albright on this issue. The first was sent to the school district May 13 arguing Coast Mountains School District administration and the board is not allowing the Indigenous community to have a voice in the matter. The decision to reassign Kawinksy to a classroom in the Terrace/Thornhill area was “not a mutual decision, but one that appears to be forced by the district.”

Another letter written May 17 was sent to Minister of Education Rob Fleming about the changes, asking how this decision was made “in the best interest of students” and whether these administrators really “chose” to return to the classroom.

KFS is asking Fleming to put this decision on hold, have the superintendent work jointly with the Terrace Indigenous community to develop a solution and change the process to one of transparency and collaboration with stakeholders. The letter was also sent to MLA Ellis Ross, MLA Doug Donaldson, several First Nation chiefs, and the BC Aboriginal Association of Friendship Centers among others.

READ MORE: Suwilaawks parents angry over district’s principal change-up

‘Where is the transparency?’

KFS is questioning whether this move without their input violates their Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement (AEA) between the school district, Gitxsan Nation, Haisla Nation, Kitselas Nation, Kitsumkalum Nation and Kermode.

Kawinsky has been a principal at Suwilaawks since 2011 and has a masters degree in education, specializing in special education and early childhood. Suwilaawks specifically has an 82 per cent Indigenous student population with 14 per cent of students identified as having special needs.

Known for having an excellent relationship with her students and their families, colleagues have also testified Kawinsky goes “above and beyond” her administrative role. Before she took the position, there were no programs at the school for special needs children, according to a former teacher.

“Families, parents, students and teachers are mourning and grieving over this — indeed we are in a state of shock. No one supports this, no one understands it. Where is the transparency?” reads the letter to the Ministry of Education.

Within the AEA agreement, CMSD 82 is required to work with the Indigenous community and Indigenous families to “improve communication between home, school and community agencies.”

Last March, an open letter from CMSD 82 stated “First Nations people have the right to make educational decisions that affect their students, with their educational institution, consistent with their unique needs, experiences, believes and values…the Board of Education commits to working in partnership with First Nations to affirm their voice in decision making…”

This was the opposite of what happened, many parents said during the May 14 meeting as their children played in the background.

READ MORE: Troubling lack of transparency in principal demotions

“I absolutely refuse to send my children to any other school other than Suwilaawks because Pam Kawinsky has designed and developed the program for special needs because of my son, who was a troubled child. Suwilaawks has become my go-to place…It feels like home for my children to go to. It’s a safe place,” says Myrna Stevens, mother of four.

“They went over everyone’s head on this issue. Everyone’s head,” says business owner Karleen Lemiski. “All of what is going on has no transparency. From everything that I try to research or a group tries to research, we get stonewalled.”

In addition to letters, petitions have also been distributed to several Terrace businesses protesting this decision. As of May 22, approximately 600 people have signed.

Minister of Education Rob Fleming says the ministry has received the letter from KFS and is reviewing the requests.

“I’ve also asked my ministry staff to reach out to the district and I understand SD 82 staff have tried to arrange a meeting with the society to discuss their concerns. I encourage the society to take the district up on that offer,” Fleming wrote in an email to the Terrace Standard.

“School districts make staffing appointments and changes based on the needs in their schools throughout the district. I empathize with the students who clearly have an appreciation for their current principals and vice principals at the impacted schools.”

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