Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Stepping Down to Search for Dale Kirby

Stepping Down to Search for Dale Kirby

By: Ryan Young

It was with mixed emotions that I announced last week to my colleagues at the Child Care Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador (CCCNL), that I would be stepping down as chair, effective at our next AGM in October, 2016. I did not make the decision to step down because the work was done. We still face the second highest childcare rates in the country and a staggering 75% of children in this province have no access at all to regulated care or any type of subsidy. Early Childhood Educators are still struggling with wage and quality issues, and private operators have been forced into a two-tier system under a government operating grant that allows some parents to pay low rates while others pay much higher ones, regardless of income. Yes, there is still lots of work to be done, and I hope that our members we elect me to remain on the board on October 22nd so that I may still be able to offer help and advice as we fight the good fight for our children, educators, and hard-working parents.

No, the reason I am stepping down as chair is because I no longer have an effective voice in the governments ear. Many of my readers will note that I have been very active and very vocal in the pursuit of a better future for our children. That started long before the election last fall, and it will continue after the Liberals fall from grace in 2019, or sooner. I have been on open-line and have done several interviews with various news outlets on why we need to do better, and how government policies just are not working. Some of the things I say come from my own personal experiences, but as the chair of a broad reaching coalition I hear from stakeholders from all sides of the childcare spectrum. When I bring a concern to the department or to Minister Dale Kirby, it is not just my own concern, it is a concern that has been raised by our members. These are legitimate concerns that deserve legitimate answers. Unfortunately, these answers have not been forthcoming.

The CCCNL board has prepared several emails for Minister Kirby since the budget last April. We have raised the legitimate concerns of our membership and have offered recommendations on how we can work together to move forward. Before the election, Minister Kirby was a very vocal ally of the coalition. He demanded to know why the government of the day refused to hear the concerns of a grassroots group made up of concerned stakeholders. After the election we were able to have a meeting with the minister and other members of the department, and we were able to cover a lot of ground. While I realized that it would still be an uphill battle, it seemed like the minister was listening to our concerns and seemed willing to make some key policy changes. The real resistance to getting things changed seemed to be coming from the bureaucracy within the department. It is worth noting that when we met with the minister, he was the only new face at the table. All of the others were the same bureaucrats from the previous administration who had created the plan that we wanted to change. I have to question how ministers can expect to make real, meaningful change in such an environment.

Despite my concerns about the bureaucracy, we continued to have follow up meetings with department officials to talk about specific concerns, and we were confident that we were making some real headway. We were concerned about the budget, but with a tiny expenditure of under $50 million, we did not foresee any major cuts to funding in Early Childhood Development. What actually came down the pipes was a 16% reduction in funding and the elimination of the transportation subsidy program that so many low income parents depended on. We were shocked at such large cuts without any consultation whatsoever with stakeholders but at the same time a little relieved that core program funding had been left intact for now. We were hoping that the operating grant money would go into the subsidy department and that was a disappointment, but overall the consensus was that it could have been worse but we still had some major issues to deal with. I contacted the minister in a personal message after the budget and thanked him for not cutting core funding and keeping our children in mind, even if I was not happy about the cuts. I even offered him advice on communicating things better, as I felt that the government was doing a very poor job of that. I soon started hearing from our stakeholders with concerns that wanted me to speak out about these cuts as they educated me on the real life effects that they were having. The more we talked to people, the more we realized how many people were being affected by these cuts, despite the departments assurance that cuts would have a minimal impact on service.

So I spoke out. I stated publicly that these cuts were a bad idea and that we felt let down by a minister who promised to make investments in childcare, not cuts. This did not go over well with the minister and he let me know that he did not agree with my position. The day after the budget I spoke with two senior bureaucrats from the department via conference call to discuss the budget changes and at that time I asked them to provide me with some documentation of the actual funding changes so that we could break down the numbers and prepare an analysis. I waited two weeks but had not yet received any information so I called the Director of Child Care and Family Services and again requested the breakdown. After another week, on May 5, I emailed the director again, so as to have a record of my request, and to this day I still have not received an email reply from her office. I brought this issue up to the minister in a private message and hoped that the information would be provided to me in a timely manner. Again, nothing happened, and on May 31st, I filed an Access to Information request for the requested documents.

On June 3, I forwarded our official budget response to Minister Kirby and the Director of Child Care and Family Services. I informed them of my disappointment at having to file an ATTIPA request for documents that should have been easy to obtain. They were not secret government documents; they were budget documents that would be released to the public anyway. I outlined our position on the budget and other issues, and suggested that we have another meeting to discuss the issues in question. As was becoming a pattern, there was no response from either the minister or the director. I waited a week and then went to write the minister a personal message and discovered that we were no longer friends on Facebook and that he had removed me as a follower on Twitter. I’ll note that he didn’t block me, but it is a pain in the butt having to re-follow him every few days just to try to find out what he is saying about education in this province. I thought this was in very poor taste and I wrote the minister one last message letting him know how I felt about it. He sent me back a simple “Thank You.” That was on June 10th. We have not spoken since.

Since then I have made several calls and emails to the minister and department officials. I got through on the phone once, from a different number than my own, but other than that the response has been silence. Minister Kirby also happens to be my MHA and I have written him several times on issues and concerns that I have had but my emails are ignored. I don’t even get the customary, “we have received your email” response. I have brought this up with the premier’s office but they didn’t seem too concerned about it either. I guess a dissident rogue like myself does not deserve representation from a MHA if they dare speak out. Just last week the minister stated on CBC radio that parents with bussing concerns could write him and he would provide school board contact information. I wrote and asked for that information and that email too was ignored. After all of this and plenty of soul searching over the last month I came to the conclusion that I must step down as chair if the stakeholders of the Child Care Coalition are to have a real voice with the minister.
So it has come to this. A former activist has become the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and he has totally turned his back on everyone that he has promised to fight for. Further than that, he has decided to shut out anyone who opposes him, and to punish the stakeholders of the Child Care Coalition because I dared to speak out against him. What does that say about Dale Kirby the person? What does it say about his character? I certainly did not get involved in this fight for our children for my own gain and I have no desire to be involved in a public battle of ego’s with the man who I used to consider an ally to the cause. If I have to step aside to give this group a voice, then this is what I will do, but I will tell the truth about why I am going. When I heard the exchange between Dale Kirby and Peter Whittle this summer about activism directly affecting funding, I knew this eventuality was only a matter of time for me.

The message here is loud and clear, if you speak out against Dale Kirby, your organization will be punished or ignored. If poor Dale’s inflated ego wasn’t clouding his vision he might see the irony in the fact that he is acting with the same arrogant disdain for the people that the PC’s did for 12 years. He likes to blame them for every decision he has made so far, but when he opens his mouth he sounds just like every other minister before him. I’m pretty sure at this point, Minister Kirby can see the writing on the wall for his political career. Maybe that would make me bitter too if I were in his shoes, but it is no excuse for the pure arrogance he has continually shown to myself and other parents, educators, and concerned residents in this province. The issues we bring forth are real and he dismisses them out of hand. We are not even a year in, and already this government has totally lost touch with its people.

I don’t usually get so personal with my posts. Even in politics we have to respect that we are talking about other human beings who have families and are most often good people in their heart of hearts. But when I continually hear Dale Kirby make excuses and tell half-truths regarding our children’s future, I can’t help but speak out and say that this is not good enough. If he responds to this post at all, he will tell you that he has met with members of the coalition board and that action has been taken on some issues. This is true, but these members had to approach the minister as private operators through personal channels and not on behalf of the coalition. We made the decision to rally the troops that way, and have been successful in making him hear the concerns they have. In the meantime, our email inbox is collecting cobwebs waiting for a response, any response to any of our inquiries in the last four months. I am almost lost for words at how a minister could act this towards any organization, let alone one that represents the interest of our most precious resource, our children. If Minister Kirby thinks the people of this province will stand for such behaviour, I fear that he may soon find himself mistaken. Parents have long memories.

It is no secret that parents in this province are angry. Childcare, full day kindergarten, bussing safety concerns, overcrowded classrooms, school sales, and many other issues are already putting a black mark on Mr. Kirby’s tenure. He would do well to look back at how that has historically worked out for education minister’s in the past. There have been many battles over education in this provinces history and the parents almost always win.  If Mr. Kirby can’t get that through his inflated head, we will be sure to remind him at the ballot box next time around. Until then I promise to be a thorn in his side by continuing to speak the truth and to show the contrast between a seemingly genuine, sincere, opposition critic and the arrogant, untrustworthy minister he has become.  Game on!

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