John Smith knows how much teachers, students, and parents at Queen Elizabeth Regional High (QERH) in Conception Bay South depend on the work of the school’s two secretaries.
That’s why Smith, who has chaired the school council for the past seven years, was particularly disappointed to learn QERH is one of several schools in the Eastern School District facing cuts to secretarial services.
“The secretaries are the central nervous system of the school, and once you cut that, everything else is affected at different levels,” said Smith.
According to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), 13 positions are set to be affected.
Two positions will be made redundant and 11 more will have hours reduced from seven per day to six.
Smith, who is also past-president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils (NLFSC), believes QERH will lose a five-hour secretarial position as a result of the cuts. He first learned of them Thursday.
“There was no consultation with anyone,” he said. “As a school council, we’re there to advise and advocate for services at the schools. Nobody brought this up before school ended.”
Smith said he wonders who will be expected to handle the extra work once the five-hour position is eliminated at the school, which has a student population of almost 600.
“It falls back to the administration, who have their hands full dealing with other school issues,” he said, noting there are always new challenges to face in the education system.
“I feel they’re cutting the wrong area. And the wrong area, obviously, is starting with front-line workers.”
Ruby Hoskins, the current NLFSC president, finds the timing of the cuts suspect, given they came after the latest school year finished.
She said she believes this was done to minimize public reaction from parents of students at affected schools.
Hoskins said many parents are now on vacation with their children.
“It’s not really going to hit home for many people until school reopens in September, and by that time (the Eastern School District) figures it’s going to blow over and you’re not going to get much feedback on it anyway.”
Instead of cutting front-line workers, Hoskins says the school district should look at reducing board travel expenses.
“The fat tends to float to the top,” she said. “I don’t think our school systems can support anymore cuts. ... It’s been hit a lot in the last few years.”
Smith said while the school may witness a student enrollment decline of approximately 10 students, he does not see how that can necessitate eliminating a part-time secretarial position.
In a news release issued last week, the Eastern School District said secretary allocations were determined in compliance with the collective agreement, an issue CUPE is not disputing.
Dr. Bruce Vey, director of education and CEO for the district, went on to say the move is not related to budget reductions.
Allocations increase or decrease depending on the number of students attending a school.
“I’m not really happy with (declining enrollment) being their excuse, because the secretaries are the front-line workers in our schools” said Lily Cole, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association. “When students come in the mornings, recess and lunch, that’s who they go to if they need any assistance of any kind.”
Cole is concerned parents with an emergency may face new difficulties when attempting to contact a school by phone.
“Will they now get a live person, or will they be going to an answering machine?”
Cole also worries that if administrators and teachers must cover for the loss of secretary hours, instructional time will likewise feel the effects.
Hoskins said there is an argument to be made for moving away from allocation formulas when it comes to staffing schools with both teachers and secretaries.
“When it comes to allocating formulas, there’s just a lot of things that aren’t taken into consideration, and its not just the secretarial hours that are going to be affected. ... What they do in our school system is certainly more than secretarial work.”
Smith said the 2008 provincial budget included $1 million to increase the number of available secretary hours.
“So the government recognized the importance of secretaries as the first point of contact for everyone concerned, so why is there a change now?”
Eastern School District has extended CUPE an invitation to meet next week, which the union has accepted.
According to CUPE national representative Brian Farewell, the two sides are scheduled to meet Tuesday.
A spokesman for the school district said it will not comment on the matter before the Tuesday meeting.
Smith said he hopes the school district is willing to reconsider its position.