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Parents say teachers' union rules district

Math mess: district meets with disgruntled parents, but little resolved

New Westminster school district representatives met with parents who were upset with the district's handling of parent complaints, but the district's attempt to appease the group of concerned parents by meeting with them turned into another brouhaha.

The school district representatives - including trustees James Janzen, Michael Ewen, Casey Cook and superintendent John Woudzia - refused to start the meeting until parents who weren't invited left, including district parent advisory council chair Wendy Harris and NWSS parent council chair Mary Ann McKenzie, Kal Randhawa told The Record.

"They told us that they weren't going to be having the meeting with these other people - that it was intended only for people who were on the invitation," said Randhawa, who was invited to the meeting.

"We wanted to have those DPAC and PAC parents there, but clearly they weren't going to continue with the meeting if they were still there, so we said, 'OK, we want to have (B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils members) Debra and Ann still here, because we really need somebody here."

In the end, Ann Whiteaker and another confederation member were allowed to join the handful of parents who issued appeals with the district to get answers after they began complaining about an unusually high failure rate in math classes taught by a teacher at NWSS.

Two parents who had complained about the math teacher in previous years were also at Monday's meeting, Randhawa said.

"These parents are sitting there saying, 'We came to you, we came to the principal, we came to the vice-principal,'" she said. "It's an issue from previous years that wasn't looked at and addressed, and that's why this year's issue came to be. That doesn't seem to be grasped, during the whole meeting. It just didn't seem to happen because they talked about evaluation and what they do in the district, which was all very broad scale, very high level, it wasn't nitty-gritty. It didn't give us any idea."

The district also had a lawyer present at the meeting, which went until 11: 30 p.m. For Randhawa, the meeting made little difference.

"Everything in the meeting kept coming back that administration really doesn't understand that there's a problem," she said.

The district isn't following its students-first mandate, Randhawa said.

"They're avoiding making teachers accountable because they don't want to upset the union," Randhawa said. "It's a lot easier to put off parents than to put off a teacher.

"I would think that's because they (teachers) have the strongest union in North America," she added.

Earlier this year, the district bumped up the grades for students in the math class class in response to the issue, but that move also didn't appease the parents.

After attending Monday's meeting, Whiteaker, president of B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, is asking whether the district is doing enough to track student achievement.

"I'm highly concerned that these accountability issues are coming forward, and it does appear that the achievement contract for the district is not a living document," Whiteaker said, referring to an annual achievement document that school districts send to the Education Ministry every year. "There is definitely a spotlight now on what accountability does this district have and what are they doing within their district achievement contract to really analyze and look at data to ensure that they are focused on the achievement of individual students."

The district should have an achievement contract committee that includes parents, she said.

Janzen said Monday's meeting was meant for the parents who had filed an appeal with the district related to the math issues.

Janzen said the meeting went "OK."

"The parents were upset, and they communicated that pretty effectively, and we felt it was our job mainly to listen, so that's what we did," Janzen said. "I felt that we had a good, honest exchange. I thought it was useful. We had a better understanding where they are coming from, so we'll carry on doing the best job we can.

"The district heard that they found the appeals policy very confusing, so we need to do some work on the appeals policy, which we are doing right now," he said.

"The student is always at the centre of our decision," Janzen added.

The district has refused to discuss any issues that involve personnel, citing legal reasons.

Ewen also spoke about the district's legal constraints.

"If we were to publicly do what the parents have done to an employee, then the board would be liable," he said.

"If we wanted to proceed with any disciplinary action against any employee, if we talk publicly about it, we lose any right to do that."

The district isn't hiding behind lawyers but following its legal obligations, he said.

"If we want to deal with something, we need to do it properly within the context of what we are legally able to do," he said.