Tuesday, May 13, 2014

interesting turn

Pardon a few acronyms here, but I'll define them as I go. A local professional development (PD) issue in our school district took an interesting turn the other day. Our Prince George District Teachers' Association (PGDTA) has been buzzing with an announcement in March that the school board office (SBO) has proposed cutting support for a district teacher position that I happen to hold at the moment.  This position coordinates support for teacher PD expenditures & travel, organizes one or more conferences, and contributes to local PD, mentorship, professional networks, and what folks like to call "capacity building." Just four years ago we adjusted to a cut in this position from three-quarter time to half-time, so we are used to doing more with less. Our PD Funds are small in SD57 -- with or without the position attached we receive less per teacher than virtually every district in the province outside of the Lower Mainland. A good example is District 27 (Cariboo-Chilcotin). They provide teachers with more then twice the funds per member as we do in District 57, and this includes support of a two-fifths position for a coordinator. Another example is District 73 (Kamloops/Thompson) with similar demographics and geographic challenges to our own; teachers there also receive more than twice the funding for autonomous PD as do our teachers.

Despite our meager funds, the PGDTA are provincial leaders when it comes to offering PD (from small sessions to a major annual conference), supporting individual PD growth plans for teachers including conference travel and leadership experience, and communicating opportunities for all. We've also had success blending our work with the services and training offered by our SBO, Ab-Ed Department, and other groups in the district. The proposed total cut to this position means either: a) the coordination work undertaken for and by teachers is misunderstood and thus undervalued, or b) the coordination work runs counter to the SBO vision for how teachers grow professionally. If there is another rationale I don't know what it is -- no one from the SBO has talked to me about it and the PGDTA has not been engaged in any meaningful discussion about this position or the value in coordinated, teacher-autonomous PD. Common decency suggests that if an authority is going to cut a position with diverse responsibilities, the courteous thing to do is to actually inform that person and offer an explanation, but that's more about HR practices and not central to this issue. The official reason given for the cut was to help cover the unfunded CUPE raise but this explanation doesn't pass the smell test -- district support for this position goes back 20 years and has been the foundation of teacher-led PD throughout that time. The cost for this position is $39K or $45K depending on how the books are kept; it also generates funds to offset costs via conference fees and alleviates costs at the SBO by reducing pressure on their Finance department. My understanding is that we would not even have known about this cut by now if CUPE hadn't put in a Freedom of Information request to find out where their raise was coming from. So many secrets, so little time!

The full background to the issue is described in this open letter to trustees.  The duties of the position in question are outlined on the PGDTA website.

Back to the "interesting turn."  There has been debate among teachers as to what we should do about this situation.  Dozens of individual teachers and at least three whole school staffs have written to trustees about the value they see in teacher-autonomous, well-coordinated PD.  The trustees tend to stay mum on most matters that are under review, so it is hard to tell if they understand what's at stake. Some teachers have suggested that if the SBO wants to take away the tools that make teacher-autonomous PD work, then maybe we should take away our support for SBO-intiated PD, In-service, and other professional training.  So far, this had been discussed on the union email forum, at the PD Committee, at the Staff Rep Assembly and AGM, and now at the Executive level of the PGDTA. I wasn't sure how far this would go -- teachers tend to give and give and often find it hard to say, no let alone take something away (even in the midst of our current job action!), so I admit being a bit surprised by the strong motion that came out of the last executive meeting:
That should the board make any cut to the Pro D fund administrator position, a motion will be made at the June SRA (Staff Rep Assembly) that our members will not voluntarily participate in any Professional Development or training events planned by the district. (carried unanimously)
This has significant implications. Current district-planned PD and training includes Learning Team Grants, an Early Learning conference, an Assessment Academy, mentorship programs, and a variety of workshops and learning series put on by SBO and elsewhere. If triggered, this June SRA motion would signal a shift in what has been a relatively cooperative relationship between teachers and the SBO on PD. Why would teachers take such a step? They see the cut to PD coordination as a cut to their ability to access teacher-autonomous PD and a reduction in quality to the PD that comes out the use of the PD Funds. The backdrop to this is that the work of the SBO to put on PD, in-service, and training has 10 times the funding and has grown every year since they "right-sized" in 2010. The work they do is admirable, although there are a few positions there that are mysterious and under-utilized. SBO-planned offerings are valuable and often necessary, but they are different from PD that is directed for and by teachers. The impression left is that PD is great, but best it it comes from the SBO and not from teachers -- as such this is appears to be a move to squeeze out professional autonomy. This is the impression that is left when our PD allocation is decreased by a third while another budget (one that could ostensibly fill the gap but is out of teacher control) simultaneously increases by a quarter million. How do teachers respond to this perceived devaluation of their own PD? Well, the PGDTA executive motion suggests one course of action. I see it as a statement that if teacher-autonomous PD is undervalued, perhaps teachers should step away from voluntarily playing ball with the SBO. I'm sure this would be a tough pill for all parties to swallow -- teachers derive benefit from all forms of PD, autonomous or otherwise.

Tonight is a School Board meeting, the first reading of their 2014-15 budget. With this issue front and centre, I am curious to see whether there will be a change in heart. It is surprising how opinions shift and votes change when a matter leaves a closed-door meeting and enters a public forum -- I've found myself doing softening a stance in similar circumstances. To date, the trustees have been publicly quiet on the issue, but the powerful testimonies from teachers about coordinated, autonomous PD, and the motion from the PGDTA Executive may finally move our trustees to realize, as our PGDTA president said, that "three blocks of time is a pittance to keep relationships collaborative and positive."

I really have no clue who reads this blog, but I'd like to thank teachers and other members of the local educational community for supporting the work of the PD Coordinator this year and contributing to high quality, useful, and joyful PD on many occasions. If my position is indeed eliminated as intended by the SBO, I have no regrets as to how I spent my afternoons this year and I look forward to adding to the PD culture of our district next year, albeit in a reduced role and off the side of my desk. My only regret is still to come -- if the position is cut we'll be forced to cancel a New Teachers' Conference for Fall 2014, the Zone Conference for Spring 2015, and attend to the inevitable change in PGDTA policy from a Fund that supports rural travel and conference opportunities out-of-district to a system that simply divvies up money to teachers and does not attempt coordination. We've seen this in other districts and it is not a successful model, especially where the amount per teacher is a low. This year, with the support of the PD Committee, I was able to act on a vision for PD that included more celebration of teacher growth, increased local opportunities for excellent PD, reaching out to more stakeholders for shared projects, notably the Ab-Ed department, and stretching our  dollars as far as possible to support individual and group goals for PD.

So, enough gloomy speculation... we could be in for an interesting turn in the way teachers are supported in our district, but I also believe that trustees have been given excellent rationale by many teachers as to why strong support should be maintained and budget cuts should be sought elsewhere. If nothing else, this experience should give trustees pause to think about how they can lobby the provincial government for sustainable funding. Again, to quote our PGDTA president: "we have been dealing long enough with cuts to Public Education. Teachers have been propping up the system for too long."

1 comment:

Thielmann said...

Well now... the trustees have had their meeting and my prediction was not too far off. The pressure of a public debate, the advocacy of 60+ letters from 90+ teachers, and the grave concern of the PGDTA executive were indeed enough to convince them to support the PD position for another year and direction for senior administration to actually engage the PGDTA on the issue. Interesting turn, indeed.