The week of education discontent

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Education Minister Alan McIsaac

Problems spinning out of control for McIsaac over cutbacks, mistakes, in-house rebellions

It hasn’t been the best six days for Education Minister Alan McIsaac. Last Saturday, the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation unloaded with one of its sharpest critiques of the government. Federation president Gilles Arsenault says he was not consulted on the latest teachers cuts which has caused an uproar in rural and urban schools. When the PEITF president says he doesn’t understand the formula used, there is a problem.

Dismal PISA scores, hints of school closures, loss of programs and staffing cuts have put education squarely into the provincial consciousness. The loss of the Grade 1 reading recovery program in some small rural schools, raised in the final days of the spring sitting of the Legislature, can be regarded as the tipping point.

Then came the revelation that Mr. McIsaac’s deputy minister, Sandy MacDonald, is on the shortlist for a senior position at UPEI. Apparently this job hunt has been ongoing since early January. One could conclude Mr. MacDonald wants out and the minister has a lame duck deputy on his hands. There is nothing to suggest a connection here involving the deputy’s brother at Miscouche Consolidated, principal Scott MacDonald, since those issues only came to light in early April. Principal MacDonald has parents upset because he apparently failed to act on allegations of bullying and other issues.

The Opposition has been trying for weeks to score political points over Mr. McIsaac’s absences from the province, stating that the minister was absent 32 days in the first three months of this year. The minister says he’s on department business, which is certainly defensible. Those absences, along with his deputy’s potential career change, are being blamed for things getting out of control inside the department. Most notable was that someone flubbed the file of the B.C. exchange student who was told to stay home because she is autistic and an epileptic.

It was not surprising to hear this week from Souris parents concerned about the high school and consolidated schools wrapping up three weeks early to facilitate construction in the K-12 building. Losing three weeks of class time is worrisome enough for parents and students. Combined with the loss of 12 teaching days due to storms this winter has doubled that worry.

It has become increasingly obvious that it was a mistake trying to merge the two schools. The town was promised a new building and government reneged to save money. For the sake of an extra $2 million to $3 million, it would have made more sense to build a new school on a different site and do the job right.

English school board trustees voiced complaints at a public meeting Tuesday over teaching cuts. Trustees are also trying to deal with the news of a secret $17,000 consultant’s report and a communications plan. The problem is, trustees are apparently in the dark on both.

It gets worse for the minister. The Greater Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce, which usually confines its comments and lobbying efforts to things business and financial, has waded into the education debate, asking the P.E.I. government this week to develop a provincial education strategy. The call follows a meeting between the chamber and both Mr. McIsaac and his deputy. The chamber feels there is a lack of accountability in the education system and has recommended introducing performance-based teacher evaluation and recruiting specialized teachers for subjects like math and science. The chamber argues that high-quality education helps ensure a strong labour market.

The minister must show leadership dealing with these concerns. He certainly doesn’t want to see another week like this for a while.

Organizations: P.E.I. Teachers, Greater Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce

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