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By Lorna Tollman, Fort McMurray, November 13, 2002.

On behalf of CUPE Local 2545, I would like to welcome members of the Alberta Commission on Learning to Fort McMurray. My name is Lorna Tollman and I am the president of CUPE Local 2545 representing 289 education support staff working in the Fort McMurray Public School District. Our membership includes teaching assistants, clerical and administrative staff, library assistants, custodians, maintenance and trades staff. Our members work in all schools and education facilities in the City of Fort McMurray. Most of our members have children or grandchildren who have attended Fort McMurray schools. The work of the Learning Commission is very important to us as education workers and members of this community and we welcome the opportunity to share our ideas and concerns about the future of education.

I would ask the members of the Commission to consider this picture – what I am going to describe does not happen everywhere, everyday but everything I am going to describe has been recently observed in the schools in our community.

The rain starts to fall and ten buckets are put out to catch the rain in one school – three of these buckets are in the cafeteria. A pipe blows on an old boiler and has to be patched together, once again. Two of the boilers in Fort McMurray schools are so old that it is no longer possible to get replacement parts. Existing electrical systems are not sufficient to support some school requirements. The high heel of a women’s shoe goes through the floor in one of the portable classrooms. A CUPE member quits her job after 10 years because of health concerns related to a school building. There was no hot water, for an entire year, in a classroom of special needs students where hygiene is an ongoing concern.

Consider also, a school cafeteria is closed and vending machines become a major or the only source of nutrition. (Please note, the healthiest food in the machines are cookies with expiry dates probably sometime in the next decade). In one large high school the 6 large vending machines are filled three times a day. There is no longer any doubt that nutrition is key to learning, and perhaps even a more urgent concern for some students with special needs and attention disorders.

Students are crowded into large classes with significantly reduced access to teacher assistants, school counselors, and library staff. One elementary class has 31 students with 10 students who need individual program support. Plans to expand one school are subject to delay after delay. Another plan to move a portable from one school to another to meet space requirements got this reaction from one CUPE member – “that portable is so old that if that if they tried to load it on a truck and move it across town all that would happen is that it would fall apart on the highway and stop traffic for a day or so”. Another school has one class attending school on the auditorium stage for lack of classroom space. The music program that was held on the stage is disrupted and noise from the gym affects classroom work (check this?).

Teacher assistants are carrying double the loads in order to provided continuous support for students with special needs. On top of that, they face requests to add on support for students with mild to moderate needs who would otherwise fall behind in their efforts to keep up with regular classroom activities. Noise levels in large classes make learning difficult for all students and impossible for students with special needs. It is sometimes impossible to find a substitute teacher available or willing to come into some classes. This problem is so serious that teacher assistants may be required to assume that responsibility – a job for which they are neither trained nor paid.

This very worrying picture of education emerged as members of our Local met to discuss what we would like to present as priority issues to the Committee. The discussion in our meeting combined with information provided response to a short survey has brought us to one clear conclusion – the future of education depends on ensuring that all aspects of learning are supported with appropriate budgets, staff levels and future planning. It is clear that adequate funding is the single most important factor. When support in one area breaks down, the consequences spill over into all other areas.

For example, when a student with special needs has the support he needs, he is able to make progress, cope with disability and participate actively in school life. Without that support, the same student may experience isolation, frustration and despair in a large class without the capacity to manage and learn. That same student may develop behaviour problems, disrupt the activities and education of the whole class and undermine the best efforts of the teacher. At this point the student may be further isolated by being sent to the office, adding responsibility for student supervision to the activities of the office staff. In some cases, where no other option exists, a school custodian may spend time with a student who is unable to cope in the classroom. In effect, a whole range of school resources and programs may be taxed by the initial failure to provide appropriate teacher assistant resources. Even where the situation is “managed” the learning opportunity for the student has been lost.

So why not just provide the needed support to the student in the first place? Again, the short answer is - there is just not enough funding. When students are identified as having special needs, a grant allocation is made available from the provincial government – frequently only enough to provide for three hours of support per day. But what happens the rest of the day – possibly all of the types of problems identified above.

In an effort to provide appropriate support, schools can budget full day TA hours, but at a cost. In the present budget environment, this is extremely difficult to do. As an alternative, schools frequently “piggyback” responsibilities on a TA. In effect, two students each requiring the full-time support of a TA but each with only three hours funding are doubled up to work with the TA all day – in effect doubling workload. It is important to realize that each of the students may have complex combinations of physical and learning disabilities and face major obstacles with communication. Time spent with one student is time taken from the other. On top of this, the TA with the double workload is very likely to be asked to provide periodic support to other students outside the classroom.

I have been working as a special needs teacher assistant in Fort McMurray for 22 years. During that time I have had the opportunity to see the gradual development of better understanding of the ways to support education for students with special needs. In the past, many or most of these students would have been excluded or left far behind in school, and then in terms of future opportunities. Teaching support, new technologies, appropriate classroom experiences all contribute to the best outcomes for students. The work of teacher assistants was recently recognized in a survey which asked students to identify teachers that did the most for them of from whom they learned the most. Twelve TA’s, members of CUPE 2545, were identified and received letters from the Superintendent.

Despite the important advances and potential in the area of support for students with special needs, the cuts in recent years have gone very far toward undermining the most basic objectives of our programs. We are fast reaching the point where our efforts to support students with special needs are being compromised beyond repair. Please consider the following comments from members of Local 2545:

We are supposed to plan activities without time to prepare. (There are) no resources to work with, no money for supplies. You can’t get a qualified substitute when you are sick – the child has to stay at home or you come in because you feel guilty.

I have two students, one requires my assistance almost all of the time, which leaves little time for me to meet the needs of my second student.

The hours I am assigned to work do not allow time to confer with the teacher or colleagues (the home bell rings at my quitting time). If I was to leave on time I would be unable to assist the children in the multitude of ways required at home time.

Despite these concerns, TA hours have been reduced in order to achieve cost savings. Part of the savings come about by reducing hours to 5.75/day with the result that TA’s are then excluded from participation in the Local Authorities Pension Plan. In reality, including unpaid work, these TA’s should be able to participate in LAPP even under the current employer policy. These cost savings are achieved by reducing or eliminating retirement income for these workers.

Similar concerns exist in all other support areas, as we indicated above, learning goals are accomplished when all education work is supported by adequate budgets. I have also received a number of reports from CUPE Local 2559 – Fort McMurray Roman Catholic Separate School Division. This Local represents school custodians and their concerns are the same as those expressed in the Public Schools –not enough hours to complete the required work, not enough people, broken equipment, overworked because there are no casuals, more injuries, cleaning standards affected by lack of staff and low morale.

In our Local we have made every effort to address our concerns through Labour Management meetings and in negotiations. We have tried to get a sub list so that TA’s and custodians don’t have to go into work sick. Our efforts to negotiate improved participation in LAPP have been flatly refused because no funds were available. Issues related to air quality and availability of hot water have been met with, sometimes lengthy, delays before being addressed. Efforts to increase hours of work for staff in order to keep up with workload have failed. In almost every case, the problem can be traced back to inadequate funding to ensure quality education, adequate staffing levels, appropriate hours of work and fair treatment of education workers.

It is very urgent that we identify the areas in which the quality of education services has been eroded or broken down, and to create plan for the future that will address these concerns.

I would like to end this presentation by asking the members of the Commission to give consideration to the specific concerns we have raised for the Fort McMurray. In addition to being the president of CUPE 2545, I am also active on the Education Employees Committee of CUPE Alberta, and I sit on the Executive of CUPE Alberta representing the Fort McMurray area. The Education Employees Committee will be reviewing the reports of the Commission. As the Fort McMurray representative on the CUPE Executive I will be reporting to all CUPE Locals in this area – CUPE 2559 - Fort McMurray Roman Catholic Separate School Division, CUPE 1505 – Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, CUPE 1399- Northern Lights Regional Health Centre and CUPE 2157 Keyano College.

The work of the Commission is very important to all of us, as workers, parents and grandparents and members of the Fort McMurray community. Thank you for the opportunity to make this presentation.