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REPORTING · 15th February 2011
Walter McFarlane
On Wednesday, February 9th, a meeting was held in the Catholic Church Hall concerning the future of Saint Anthony’s Elementary School. While we were told by the representatives of the Diocese, “The meeting was positive,” parents and members of the Church have come forward to tell us: This was not the case.

Unfortunately, media was not allowed into the meeting. When we showed up and we were told to leave, although the public relations representative invited us to a press conference the next morning. It was a press conference of one as none of the other local media showed up.

After the article went live, we started to receive messages about the meeting telling us the account we were given was fictional. Since then, we have talked to several people who attended the meeting to try and get a grasp on what happened.

From what we have been told, parents were concerned about the dismissal of three teachers, two of whom are senior staff members who are close to retirement as well as the only male teacher at the school. The meeting ran from 7:00pm to 10:00 pm, an hour longer than had been planned.

Kitimat is a town with a strong union background. In such a community, the idea of laying off senior staff before laying off newer employees is akin to blasphemy. As such, when the Kitimat Daily interviewed the Superintendent, we had no idea who was being dismissed.

“It was a meeting with the Catholic Independent Schools, the Superintendent, the Principal and the School Council from here. What transpired was due to the lack of students, they are going to let some teachers go at the end of the school year. We were there to ask questions because what the Principal and the Superintendent of the Catholic School did, they laid off the three top salary teachers, the top senior positions,” said Frank Mauro.

Mauro is the former president of CAW 2300 and is a parishioner at Christ the King Church. He served 14 years on the Catholic School Board and 8 years in the public school system. He stated schools cannot stay open when there are few students but they also cannot dismiss teachers from the top down, they have to go from the bottom up.

Concerned parishioner, Ainsley Encinas might be moving from Kitimat soon, but he was upset by the decision and was in attendance at the meeting. Encinas said when the meeting was announced, it was described as being professionally facilitated and it would be an opportunity for questions to be answered.

He suggested the representatives of the Diocese were there to answer economic questions about the school.

“The majority of the crowd was more interested in the fact that the layoffs took place because they understand the economic realities. But they were concerned with who was laid off. Why the three senior most teachers and not from the bottom. It was not a calm and quiet meeting, it was a loud angry outburst from many people, myself included,” said Encinas.

He said he had wished the media had been allowed into the meeting and confirmed rumours that, in the opening speeches, reporters were asked to leave.

Luella Froess, a member of the community who was present at the meeting said: “People were unhappy about the way that it was done and an adequate answer was not given why senior staff was laid off. The question was asked as: ‘was it because of money, was it because your senior staff, of course they are going to cost more in benefits and wages. We were told no, that wasn’t the reason, that the reason was personal and it could not be discussed because of privacy laws.”

“It was orchestrated,” said Mauro. “There was no direct answer back to the questions given back. When I asked a question and several of my friends asked questions, they were not given back. The answer I was given back for the reason why the decision was made and they said the decision was final.”

According to all sources, the answer which was given for the lay offs was that it was confidential. Encinas said the people at the meeting understood this, but one person asked whether or not the teachers were aware of why they were being laid off. The response from the superintendent was that none of the teachers asked.

“At which point, one of the teachers, Mrs. Tate, interjected and said: ‘I asked twice.’ She was not given a reason. She was told it was a very difficult decision. This got everybody else even more angry because they are not going to share with the crowd the reason and they are not going to tell the people why they were laid off. It speaks of dishonesty and it speaks of something to hide,” said Encinas.

According to one person we talked to, she stormed out of the meeting.

Froess questioned the reasoning behind dismissing the teachers. They were told it was not due to high salaries and benefits. “The teachers themselves are not sure why they are being terminated. They have all been teaching at Saint Anthony’s for more than 20 years and if their performance was not adequate why were they kept on? Apparently they were not laid off due to lack of qualifications!” she argued.

“I was angry about the decision they made and how they went about it,” said Virgil Vales, a parent of a Saint Anthony’s student. Vales is also president of CAW 2300. “They actually laid off the three senior teachers, end of story.”

He said people in the room were angry about this decision, about the way it was made. Vales himself said if his daughter was not finishing grade 7 this year, he would have pulled her out of the school.

Encinas commented he had heard further discussion of parents wishing to remove their children from the school after the meeting, notably online.

The teachers of Saint Anthony’s are not unionized. Mauro stated the teachers have no recourse past the Catholic Parishioners. The parishioners are trying to get the Superintendent to reconsider and go from the bottom up.

According to Encinas, this means lay offs do not need to be justified. He stated people are shocked this happened in a Christian community by people who call themselves Christians.

Froess stated she asked if the school had to follow guidelines laid out by the Labour Relations Board. She said the answer was a referral to policy 409.

She said her questions remained unanswered and questioned whether the staff were simply trying to appease the parents. “Most people brought up similar questions. We all had the same concerns,” said Froess.

Encinas also brought up the point of the Principal at the school. He stated when a sports team does badly, the manager goes. He called upon the Principal to leave the school. He said enrolment has been dropping for several years. He suggested the Principal was not a people person.

Froess suggested the school did not need a full time principal with less then 200 students. When she pointed out public school principals in schools with less then 200 students are also teachers, the response was the Principal was too busy to teach.

Encinas left the meeting uncertain the visiting representatives of the Diocese got the message the parents brought. He stated Larry Chrobot, a member of the panel remained upbeat and positive about the opportunities to make the school grow in Kitimat.

According to Vales, one of the representatives of the Diocese suggested the closure of Roy Wilcox was a great thing for the school because the school could attempt to recruit some of the displaced students.

“Everyone got angry at that because nobody wants to see a school close, nobody. If a school closes, that means the community’s in trouble,” said Vales.

While the meeting is over, the dark cloud over the school persists.

“You are not just talking about a business here. You are talking about a religious organization which is supposed to have superior morals,” said Encinas. “The tone of the meeting was angry, it was emotional, some parents were concerned that if this isn’t resolved, the school would end up closing because more than one person said it will injure the school and it will. People will end up pulling their kids out of the school and they will stop contributing to the church when it’s time for collection and this will have a negative influence in the school. People are saying: ‘do I want my children to go to a school where such obvious injustices took place?”

Vales said he understands these decisions are not easy to make. While he wrote a letter on how he was not happy about the decision, he still thanked the school; trusts the school Council for the hard work they do and thanked the Principal. He also told them the decisions they made were wrong.

“This goes against everything I believe in as a union. This is not the kind of stuff I want to see done by the Catholic Church, discarding their three senior people. This is just terrible,” said Vales. He suggested the teachers unionize to gain some protection.

Encinas stated the meeting ended with the determination about the decision to lay off the teachers being final. He told the panel this decision could lead to a decline in enrolment.

“To me, it is something that I feel compelled to complain. I cannot sit back in good conscious as a human being, as a Catholic, as a Parishioner, as a volunteer in an organization, you cannot sit back and remain silent about a great injustice has been done and I have to let my voice be heard,” said Encinas.

In the meantime, a petition is being put together. We are told the parishioners are going to sign it and it will be sent to different groups who are involved in the school.
Difficult Times
Comment by Lori Moran on 16th February 2011
I was also in attendance of the recent meeting in regards to St. Anthony`s School, and i can share that is was indeed most heart wrenching. There were many people in that room who are, and have been, emotionally invested in St Anthony`s, and it`s children and families, for many years. The participation of so many caring parents, teachers and most notably elder community members, last Wednesday is a testament to all the beautiful strengths of this school. These community members recognise that one of the benefits of a private catholic school education is that we, as parents, can have have influence and can be actively involved in the goals of our school.

Personally, when i reflected on the various discussions at the meeting (and considered the incredibly emotional content) i thought about our children. I came to the conclusion (and good news!) that our children are,and will continue to, receive a very high standard of education, because of the very commitment of those in attendance.

What seems to be missing from this difficult dialogue is the wonderful strengths of St.Anthony`s School and the many children who are benefiting from a exemplary education. St. Anthony`s students are considered to have high academic achievements, and many students follow this up with continued honour roll placement in secondary school and attend post secondary studies. In addition, because of the spiritual component of the school, there is a very strong focus on educating the whole child. This only adds to the dynamic life skills that the children are exposed to.

While admittedly at the moment, it is a difficult time, i have no doubt that everyone involved will return to sharing all of the amazing achievements of St. Anthony`s School with our community, and focus on how we can continue to provide a top notch education for our children during these challenging times.

I am not sure what will happen in terms of student numbers, layoffs, and the what the future holds--but i am hopeful that the community members who built this school, the parents and the grandparents who care about our children, will work together to uphold the respected reputation of this school previous to the current, and very challenging issues. I am certain we will build a solid future at St Anthony's for the children of Kitimat.

Man up...
Comment by Andy Brousseau, former student on 16th February 2011
Thank you for writing this article. It clears the air, a bit, and just goes to show us that this guy, the principal Cornthwaite (and notice I call him a guy...he is no man) should step down, or better, be fired himself. He doesn't deserve a job in this great town of ours. It sure sounds like he has his own agenda and it shouldn't be allowed.

If I had kids in that school, and as others, I too would seriously consider pulling them out. But I would also explain to any kids, the whole issue of fighting back and having to sacrifice for that fight.

Mr. Cornthwaite, "Man up or step down"