Writer argues the recent shuffle of principals in the school district bears similarities that led to the 1981 illegal teachers’ strike that jumpstarted unionization in the province. Pictured, teacher union activists gathered around a new plaque last year dedicated to strike by the BC Labour Heritage Centre. (Brittany Gervais photo)

LETTER | Troubling lack of transparency in principal demotions

Dear Editor,

Thirty-eight years ago this month, the teachers of what was then School District 88, took job action, culminating in a strike. I was proud to be one of those teachers.

In 1981, the teachers of BC were not unionized and their representatives were only allowed to bargain wages. Despite being professionals, we were not allowed input into class sizes or any other conditions of our work. Year after year, negotiations over salaries broke down and were then settled in binding arbitration, and the settlements were never satisfactory. This, and our inability to have a say in what was best for the kids in our classes, led to simmering discontent.

In 1981, principals were part of the Teachers’ Association. In the spring of that year, Tom Hamakawa, the principal of Skeena Secondary School, was told he would be transferred and demoted to classroom teacher. The staff rose to Hamakawa’s defence, as did 300 students who walked out of class and marched on the board office in protest.

At the time I was working under principal Roy Greening at Thornhill Elementary School. Roy was also told he would be assigned to the classroom. Together with the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) the TDTA appealed this decision on the grounds that Mr. Greening was entitled to know the reasons for his transfer and demotion before his appeal hearing. This didn’t happen.

Because of the arbitrary and unfair handling of these two cases, it was clear that we needed a clear and fair policy dealing with transfers and personnel practices in general.

On May 6, 1981, my colleagues and I walked out of our classes and forfeited a day’s pay. We organized a study session and agreed overwhelmingly to initiate a work to rule campaign; we would teach, but nothing more.

With no satisfactory response from the School Board, we escalated the job action to that of rotating strikes, despite being reminded by the School Board that they had the power to fire us and would use it. During this time we phoned parents of our charges to explain reasons for our actions. We took out ads in the Terrace Herald questioning the actions of the trustees.

The school board continued to ignore our concerns with the result that we eventually undertook a full-on strike.

After a week, we came to an agreement with the School Board. Roy Greening and Tom Hamakawa were vindicated, and we agreed on a Personnel Practices Contract, a momentous development in the bargaining rights of teachers that teachers throughout this province built upon.

Ultimately, the teachers’ strike of 1981 in Terrace was a seminal act that led to the unionization of teachers in BC.

Imagine my shock when I returned from Vancouver and read in last week’s Terrace Standard that Skeena students had marched on the board office to protest the “shuffling of popular principals.” When I read that the principals to be shuffled were Phillip Barron, Cory Killoran, and Pam Kawinsky, I was stunned.

Toward the end of my career, I spent a couple of years working as a teacher-on-call.

One of the schools I subbed at often was Copper Mountain Elementary. Phillip Barron was the principal there at the time, and under his leadership the school ran efficiently and harmoniously. When the school was forced to close due to declining enrollment, I personally sought out Phillip to offer my condolences and to let him know how much I appreciated working in a well run school with a committed staff and Principal.

When Phillip moved to Skeena via Thornhill Elementary, I was happy to know that he would be bringing his leadership skills to the middle school. When he was joined by Cory Killoran, I was pleased too. I have never worked with Cory, but I taught him in elementary school and have always been happy that he chose education as his profession.

I’ve known Pam Kawinsky, since she was Pam Lamb, a grade seven school kid in Clarence Michel, the school now known as Suwilaawks, the one of which she is now Principal. I have watched her move up through the school system, from teacher to vice-principal, and to Principal at a school where she has been for 8 years, a school where she is popular and respected, and has gone above and beyond for the children under her charge.

In three decades as a teacher I’ve only known one principal who requested a return to the classroom. Now I’m being asked to believe that three of the strongest administrators in this district, principals at the peak of their careers, have all requested to transfer to the classroom with a subsequent loss in pay, pension benefits, and prestige. I also read that two of them are to be replaced by people with far less experience and tenure.

I don’t buy it.

Since Bill VanderZalm’s provincial government passed legislation removing principals and vice-principals from the BCTF, they have no longer have the protection being in a union affords. This has made them weaker and conferred greater power to senior administration, and especially superintendents. They can be replaced and reassigned and there is very little they can do about it.

If the three principals in question really wanted to return to the classroom, they would tell us why, but they haven’t. It seems like they are not allowed to talk. Have they been issued a gag order? Gag orders are punitive and, as such, have no place in modern management.

The current Board of Education has issued a letter stating that they have confidence in the Superintendent of Schools, Katherine McIntosh. Yet when the press asks for an interview with the Superintendent, she declines, which suggests she is hiding something.

I read that parents are shocked, as I was. No decision should be a shock. Wise decisions are the end result of collaborative, justifiable management actions that have a buy in from all participants.

Every decision by the Superintendent of Schools must be for the benefit of the children in our schools. Ultimately, the Superintendent is also responsible for the culture of the district, which includes treating its employees fairly and providing consistent, innovative leadership in schools. If the current Superintendent and the Board of Education believe these decisions are sound, they should have no fear of presenting their rationale for these moves in public. If the principals in question did indeed “choose” to return to the classroom, they should be given the opportunity to explain why. The lack of transparency and loss of these three outstanding educational leaders is troubling.

Robert Brown

Retired teacher, former president Terrace and District Teachers’ Union

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