The Chilliwack Board of Education has rejected a decision by an arbitrator on next year’s calendar, and it’s unclear what will happen next. (Progress file)

Chilliwack school board rejects arbitration ruling on calendar

Trustees vote 3-2 against two-week spring break, leaving next school-year calendar in question

An arbitrator had to be pulled in recently to help the Chilliwack school district and the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association (CTA) decide on next year’s school calendar.

The district was proposing a one-week spring break, with shorter days and shorter recesses (10 minutes) for elementary students. The teachers were proposing a two-week calendar, with significantly longer days. Ed Klettke, president of the CTA, says they were aiming for “status quo” and based their proposed calendar on this year’s.

On Feb. 28, the arbitrator report sided with the CTA. But at the April 7 school board meeting, that decision was firmly rejected by the majority of voting trustees.

It’s unclear what the next steps will be to resolve the issue. Interim superintendent Rohal Arul-Pragasam says he is exploring the options available and expects to know in a few weeks what happens next.

In the meantime, there is no solid start date, times or spring break schedule for schools or families to begin planning from.

Normally, school districts have submitted a calendar to the Ministry of Education by now. But when the two parties couldn’t agree, they moved to the arbitrator for a final decision, submitting their calendars on Feb. 20. The process of moving to an arbitrator stemmed from a 2017 grievance by the CTA when the district implemented a school calendar that breached their collective agreement.

The move to reject the arbitration for the 2020/2021 came near the end of last Tuesday’s school board meeting, which was held via Zoom. The board of seven members was reduced to five for the discussion and vote, as both trustees David Swankey and Willow Reichelt have spouses who are teachers and would be in conflict to participate.

Trustees Barry Neufeld, Heather Maahs and Darrell Furgason all spoke against the arbitration and “big unions.”

“Just because an arbitrator makes a decision, that doesn’t make it right,” Maahs said.

She said the calendars need to go back to the arbitrator, however there were no assurances from senior staff about what would happen next. Board chair Dan Coulter noted that it was likely to go to court, and end up costing the district in court fees.

“I myself would have preferred a different decision, but we went with an arbitrator and that’s what we have to go with,” Coulter argued. “There are some sort of legal ramifications I’m sure.”

“We feel very strongly that this arbitration decision is not the right decision,” Maahs underlined.

Maahs also stated that the decision was made before the board had the opportunity to go out to the community and ask them. But the district did run a poll on its website on this very issue. And the results, while in short supply compared to the number of families here, showed that the majority did not like the district’s proposed calendar. While there are about 14,000 students in the Chilliwack school district, there were 3,320 responses. Of those, 65 per cent rejected the board’s calendar, and 35 per cent supported it.

READ MORE: Chilliwack school trustees using Zoom to conduct meetings during pandemic

Arul-pragasam provided more context. In a thorough report of the survey, he said “the majority of reasons cited against were along the lines of the two-week spring break allowing students and staff more to rest and re-energize, and providing for important family time including vacations.”

“Those in favour of the calendar cited hardships in having students out for two weeks and the need for students to have more time in school,” he added.

That is also a concern for the board, who acknowledged that a two-week break is hard on families, and could be particularly next spring as financial needs could become even more dire depending on how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts. He suggested that in future years, the board find better ways to connect with more families.

Furgason added that “union people… of course want a two-week break” but that “is not great for parents.”

“Even if it (arbitrator’s decision) gets pushed through by the ministry and we have no legal right, I would like to make a statement that we did not have a say,” he said. “We don’t want to rubber stamp things. We need to hear more from the public and not follow big unions.”

Neufeld said that he didn’t think families would really want a two-week break now that the pandemic has caused financial hardships.

“The school board has been elected to speak for their community and that’s why I oppose this calendar,” he said.

Coulter reminded the trustees that they agreed to the arbitration and that they signed a collective agreement with the union. He also suggested approving the calendar and making a formal statement, but that option wasn’t favoured by the board.

“I think that’s the way to go other than some protracted legal battle,” he added.

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