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Dissenters far outnumber supporters at Education Reform Act hearing

Dissenters far outnumber supporters at Education Reform Act hearing
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A series of speakers are calling on the Nova Scotia government to put the brakes on proposed legislation that seeks to dramatically change the way schools are administered in the province.

The legislature’s law amendments committee was scheduled to hear from nearly 60 people Monday about the Education Reform Act, which was tabled last week and is based on recommendations outlined in a recent report from education consultant Avis Glaze.

Dozens of people told the committee they don’t believe the changes set to be ushered in through Bill 72 will help improve things in the classroom.

Among other changes, the legislation will scrap the province’s seven elected regional school boards and will remove principals, vice-principals and other supervisors from the teachers union, although they will remain affiliated.

Heather Cummings, a teacher at Westmount Elementary in Halifax, said while she supports some of the changes, the biggest problem is the makeup of classrooms, which is not addressed in Bill 72.

“To have 29 students in a class, which we do have in one split-class at Westmount, is not OK when there’s students on IPPs and behavioural programs. It’s not safe for the other students,” Cummings said during her 10-minute presentation.

Nova Scotia law amendments committee

Members of the Liberal-dominated committee listen to presentations. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Peter Day, a teacher from Cape Breton who also sits on the executive of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, gave the Liberal-dominated committee a similar message.

“A few years ago I taught a Grade 3 class that had 18 students in the class — 10 had learning disabilities, four were autistic, one had Tourette’s,” he said. “I did not meet the needs of all those students. I wish I did but I didn’t.”

He said the provisions in Bill 72 would not improve that situation.

“Our crisis in our schools, administrators being in the union — not one of them. School boards being elected is not one of them,” he said.

NSTU calls again to keep administrators in union

NSTU president Liette Doucet also used her presentation Monday to try to convince the government to abandon its plans to force principals, vice-principals and other administrators out of the union.

She told the committee the only reason the government was making that change was to punish administrators for their actions during last year’s work-to-rule campaign, when most principals and vice-principals followed the directive of their union rather than the province.

Doucet, who last week suggested there were ways to mend the fractured relationship between her union and the government, ended her presentation with warning.

“If Bill 72 passes, this government can never be trusted again,” she said. “We can never trust that once a collective agreement is reached, the government won’t come back to force collective-agreement amendments during the next legislative session.

“We can never trust that a collective agreement, a contract, is worth any more than the paper it’s written on.”

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen is a member of the Halifax Regional School Board. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Cindy Littlefair, a Halifax Regional School Board member, also started her presentation with a lament.

“We are witness to the death of one of the most ignoble, inglorious, unsung, unsexy elected offices on the face of the earth, the lowly elected school board ” she said. “And yet the current and coming generations will be the poorer for it.”

She offered a warning to the government, which is intent on replacing the regional boards with an appointed advisory body.

“Bill 72 makes boards go away but it doesn’t make dissent go away,” she said. “It just makes it harder to express.

“People will still need to take the system to task but they won’t have sufficient means to do so.”

Suzy Hansen, who also sits on the Halifax board, agreed change was needed, but not what is being proposed.

“The achievement gap, yes, there definitely needs to be changes. There are definitely things that need to be addressed but doing a clean sweep and an abrupt change so quickly is not going to help,” she said. “It’s only going to push us back further.”

Inclusion amendment coming

Educational consultant Paul Bennett was one of the few to express support for the changes.

“I think there’s enough here that we should support this initiative and go forward,” he said. “I think it’s going to have long-term benefits for students, teachers and the public.”

Liberal members on the law amendments committee have signaled the government is bringing an amendment forward to “fix” the language in Bill 72 related to inclusion.

Several people have pointed out the wording in the proposed law does not match the language in the existing Education Act when it comes to the way children who need extra help should be treated.

Environment Minister Iain Rankin notified the committee about the need for an amendment, on behalf of the government.

“There was nothing untoward or surreptitious in terms of what we’re putting in this new act,” he said. “We are absolutely committed to inclusion.”

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