Egos in Education
By: Ryan Young
Is there a portfolio in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador that is off to as bad a start as Education and Early Childhood Development? There are certainly some close challengers, but the repeated failings of the D-of-EDU under its new minister, Dale Kirby, has earned a place of distinction as the worst of the worst. This should be troubling to many, and not just parents, teachers, and administrators. As the old saying goes, a person without education is like a building without a foundation, and our foundations are being torn apart from the inside. In our current time of economic crisis, we need to be making investments in education, but instead we have seen nothing but cuts and bad accounting decisions. As if that was not bad enough, we have a minister with skin like parchment paper, who refuses to engage in any meaningful way with anyone who dares to question his decisions. Instead of offering us facts and evidence, Mr. Kirby has continually resorted to personal attacks and the immediate dismissal of serious concerns. At what point does the premier say enough is enough?
Of course, we can’t blame Dale Kirby for all the problems in education, and it would be foolish for us to assume that there would be an easy fix to the many complex problems we are facing. Nobody denies that Minister Kirby and the rest of his colleagues inherited a tough situation, but the people overwhelmingly voted for change and on that front Kirby has fallen short. Everything he has said and done so far as minister has been in direct contrast to everything he said while in opposition. From libraries, to school closures, to school bus safety issues, Minister Kirby continues to contradict his old self at every opportunity. He has certainly come a long way from the vocal protester that demanded better rights and opportunities for students.
Many of my readers will remember my recent departure from the chair position at the Child Care Coalition of NL. Kirby was a big supporter of the coalition while in opposition, and we had a few meaningful discussions shortly after he took office. That all changed with the budget last April, and my vocal opposition to cuts, and pretty soon the cord was cut. After months of being ignored by the minister and department staff, and having to file Access to Information requests for simple budget documents, it became clear that the organization was being ignored because of my vocal opposition to cuts and lack of communication. As much as I didn’t want to leave the position, I felt that my only option was to step down and hope that someone else might be able to re-establish an open line of communication with government.
Soon after, Federation of School Councils President, Peter Whittle, also resigned his position after a very public battle with the minister. NLTA president Jim Dinn has also been very vocal about Kirby’s attitude and lack of communication, and has asked the minister to apologize for undermining the teacher’s union. After hearing comments that the minister had made about Mr. Whittle, Mr. Dinn, and the complete dismissal of their legitimate concerns, I realized that I was not alone in my struggle for answers and recognition of real issues. Somewhere along the way it seems that Mr. Kirby has forgotten the role of education minister, and has completely ignored the mandate letter that he was given by the premier when he was sworn in last year.
Not many were surprised then, when the news broke yesterday that the NLTA executive had lost confidence in Minister Kirby, and that they had voted unanimously to ask for his removal from the education portfolio. As Mr. Dinn pointed out, if stakeholders can't have a discussion with government about hard issues relating to schools without resorting to personal attacks, then we have to wonder about their ability to resolve important issues in the education system. When you hear those kinds of words from someone like Mr. Dinn, it makes you step back and wonder how much damage are we doing to our children’s education in order to satisfy the minister’s fragile ego?
Another great example is Dave Callahan. Mr. Callahan has been speaking out for years on the bus tendering system in this province, and has promised us time and time and again that government policy was going to lead to safety issues within the bus system. He, like many other advocates, had a friend in Dale Kirby while he was in opposition, but since last November, Mr. Callahan’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Now with buses being pulled off the road and more than 100 charges pending due to safety violations, it appears that Mr. Callahan’s warnings have come true. The school board promises that safety is its top priority, but the department who is ultimately responsible has been silent. Again, I don’t blame Dale Kirby for the unsafe busses that were discovered, but he was given information that this would happen and failed to act on it. As minister, he has the responsibility to ensure the safety of our children and in the end the buck stops with him.
The minister may not like people like myself, Mr. Whittle, Mr. Dinn, Mr. Callahan, and the plethora of others who have been speaking up about issues in the education system, but sooner or later he needs to address the concerns of stakeholders and offer a clear plan for education in this province. Nobody in government ever likes to admit they are wrong, but how long can we afford to gamble with our children’s future so that Dale Kirby can feel satisfied that he is right? The situation has escalated well beyond political norms and it is not only the NLTA who feel that it is time for a change in our education portfolio.
Last fall, the Liberals promised to break the cycle of governing based on politics in favor of evidence-based decision making. Instead we got full-day kindergarten before we were ready, cuts to teachers and child care, and the closure of libraries followed by the after-the-fact $187,000 Ernst & Young review to see if closing them is actually a good idea. In one of the few times the minister has come out of hiding, he told reporters that it was unlikely that the government would have the stomach to go back to the library closures. So why are we still spending that kind of money on a review, while the School Lunch program was forced to raise its own money to meet the demand from thousands of new students enrolled in the program this year because of full-day kindergarten? Want to know how many school lunches the EY library review could buy? About 53,429. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
At this point the only thing that we can hope for is a cabinet shuffle soon. Several ministers have lost the confidence of the people and if Dwight is ever going to get this ship right-side-up, he is going to need to start drawing on some new sources of ideas. When it comes to education, how long can you allow a minister to alienate stakeholders and the public? It is long past time for Dwight Ball to shed the nice guy persona and start getting tough with his own people. Yes, the ministers will take their own heat, but at the end of the day it will be the premiers leadership, or lack of it, that will be remembered. In a few years, Dale Kirby’s name will be forgotten as he fades into the annals of history as part of the governing class that couldn’t quite make the cut. Dwight Ball, however, will be remembered for much longer. Does he really want to hitch his legacy on the egos of people like Dale Kirby? I guess we will have to wait and see.