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Northland teachers ready to move ahead

December 2, 2014 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Time for elected trustees, says local president

Teachers in the Northland School Division would like to see a new board established so decisions on important issues can be made, says the head of the teachers’ local.

On Nov. 17, news surfaced that a “community engagement team” established by Alberta Education was recommending that a nine-person board be established for the Northland School Division. The division has been operating with a single government-­appointed trustee since 2010, when then education minister Dave Hancock fired the entire board, citing dysfunctionality amid a range of concerns within the division.

Since then, division teachers have been uneasy, waiting and wondering what will happen next, so there is support for moving ahead with a new board as recommended by the engagement team, said Mark Burke, president of Northland Local No. 69.

“I think the trustee has done just about as good a job as he could possibly do under the circumstances, but everybody knew it was just a matter of time until something different happened and everyone’s wondering what it is.”

Low attendance, poor academic results, poor transportation and facilities, and high turnover among teachers and principals are among the long-term problems experienced in the division.

Northland students are missing more than four school days a month, 40 days a year or 200 days over five years, says the division’s newsletter from September-October.

Across the division, most students didn’t meet the acceptable standard for achievement tests in 2013 – 14. In Grade 3 math, 39 per cent met the acceptable standard, compared to the provincial average of 74 per cent. In Grade 9 social studies, 14 per cent of Northland students met that standard versus 65 per cent across Alberta.

Since the board was fired, the school division has launched initiatives to improve areas such as literacy, student attendance, graduation rates and achievement test results, but these remain issues of concern to teachers, Burke said.

The division has implemented a new program that has helped local residents earn their teaching credentials. This has helped ease the recruitment situation, Burke said, but turnover among teachers and principals is still high — almost 20 per cent a year.

Teachers would also like help achieving a better work-life balance, accessing professional development and dealing with the isolation of the northern communities where Northland operates, he said.

And one of the most pressing issues is the poor condition of teacherages in the north. The division has done its best to address the issue, but the province needs to step up, Burke said.

“Teachers are frustrated with what they see as no movement on something that’s very tangible for them,” Burke said.

This is one of the reasons why teachers would welcome an opportunity to work with a new board.

“We feel it’s time for elected people to be in those positions,” Burke said. “It’s time to start moving forward so that decisions can be made about what Northland is going to look like in the future.”

Minister getting “up to speed”

The division operates 24 schools throughout northern Alberta and serves about 2,700 students, most of whom are Aboriginal. The previous governance structure comprised a 23-member overarching school division board, whose members were selected from 23 local boards. The engagement team is recommending a nine-person board, with seven members elected in a ward system that’s based on geography and student population, and two nominated by First Nations and Métis communities and appointed by the education minister.

Establishing a new school board would require a government amendment to existing legislation. When asked about the situation at the recent conference of the Alberta School Boards Association, Education Minister Gordon Dirks said he’s still getting up to speed on the issue.

The community engagement team comprises of representatives from throughout the area served by the division and was established in 2011. The report recommending the new board structure, entitled Kids First, was written more than two years ago but only released in the summer by the provincial government. ❚

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