AN apparent sickout orchestrated by teachers at St. Mary’s College on Tuesday, in which about 30 of them were absent, is a symptom of a malady that plagues denominational schools and their relationship with the Government of St. Lucia.
The situation at St. Mary’s has now escalated to the point where the general membership of the St. Lucia Teachers Union (SLTU) has been placed on high alert, which could only mean preparation for industrial action within the school system, if the SLTU deems it necessary.
“The union is looking at the situation very, very closely. We are very disheartened. I have been in a lot of conversations with my officers. This is so serious (that) we, the executive, have agreed to put our general council and general membership on high alert because that kind of madness should not continue in the education system. More than that, the SLTU feels under attack when one of its very own is being deprived of a position because of his association with a legitimate organization,” said SLTU President, Julian Monrose.
It all started last year when the long-serving vice-principal of the college retired, making the position vacant. A call was made for persons to apply and a number of them did. The applicants were shortlisted, interviews conducted and Don Howell, general secretary of the SLTU at the time, was appointed acting vice-principal. Howell’s appointment letter stated he would be acting for one year and his performance during that year would be measured.
“My understanding is that at the end of that year, the person who was providing immediate supervision to Mr. Howell, who is the principal (Rowan Seon), gave Mr. Howell an excellent appraisal. This should have brought closure to the appointment of a vice-principal at St. Mary’s College because it meant that he had met all requirements and his performance for the year was excellent. All that was needed was for Mr. Howell to be confirmed in the post,” Monrose said.
Monrose added: “We (SLTU) are aware that having received the appraisal, the Ministry (of Education) endorsed Mr. Howell as the person to be confirmed in the position because the Ministry was satisfied with his performance.”
Monrose added that the Ministry’s endorsement was sent to the Teaching Service Commission (TSC), which is responsible for making appointments.
“It appears that the Board of St. Mary’s College was not happy for some reason. It claimed that it did not see the appraisal and that the Chairman had not signed the appraisal form. There is nothing on the appraisal form that has a place for the Board because the Board is not any teacher employer; it is the Ministry and with the Ministry. There is a process when it comes to appraisals,” Monrose said.
He explained that the process starts with the principal, who appraises the vice-principal. That appraisal would then be sent to the Education Officer, who would make comments and recommendations, after which it would go to the Ministry of Education and from there communication is sent to the TSC.
“There is something in the regulations that says the TSC shall consult all authorities responsible for the school, meaning the Board, Ministry, etc. But don’t forget this is not a new appointment. The Church was represented at the interview last year when the TSC held its interview. The Ministry had a representative. The owner of the school, which is the Church (Roman Catholic), had a representative and Mr. Howell emerged out of that interview as the one who was appointed.
“So all you needed to do was to look at him for one year and determine if he is fit based on his performance. Once the appraisal is in and he is fit, he had to be confirmed. The Board is raising an objection but an objection on what? It cannot be an objection on performance because he has an excellent appraisal,” Monrose said.
He accused the School Board of adopting an anti-union position, claiming that its objection to Howell assuming the post of vice-principal of the college is because of his association with the SLTU. Monrose said this was arrived at from statements made by some Board members stating that Howell, as SLTU general secretary, would not be allowed to assume the vice-principal position.
“This is clearly an anti-union position by the Board because the SLTU is a legitimate legally-registered organization and Howell is a member of the profession and has every right to be a member of the organization,” Monrose said.
Howell now seems to be in an awkward position, in that he gave up his full-time position at the SLTU for the vice-principal position. Now that his one year is up, he cannot go back to being SLTU’s general secretary because that position has been taken up by an industrial relations consultant employed by the SLTU.
The TSC was supposed to have met yesterday to deal with the vice-principal matter. The VOICE has been unable to garner a response from it; however, Monrose is not too pleased with that body, claiming that under the Constitution, while the TSC can consult, it must make independent decisions.
“Clearly with Mr. Howell having satisfied everything, including his performance in the position, for the TSC to have failed to confirm him in the position means that the TSC is allowing itself to be influenced by a Board, because the real employer is the Ministry and the Ministry had recommended him. Why should an outside party be holding back the process? In my view, the TSC should have acted decisively based on the objective facts before it and make the appointment,” Monrose said.
He believes the SLTU is under attack and is looking at the situation very closely. His appearance at the school on Monday, which was frowned on by the Board, and which may have led to the sickout the following day, which was also denounced by the Board was, according to Monrose, something he had to do.
“The teachers called me and said we need you here because there is a situation in the school that is depressing us. I have a responsibility to respond. I did not just appear at the school; the teachers demanded that I (make an appearance) and I went to the school. After all, that is why they pay their dues,” Monrose said.
But what if the TSC does not confirm Howell to the vice-principal post and appoints another?
Monrose described this scenario as “very unfortunate” and something “the union will have to deal with”.
“We are not in the position to tell the TSC whom to appoint. The TSC has a responsibility to show independence. Not to appoint Mr. Howell would suggest that the TSC had been influenced,” Monrose said.
Meanwhile, the school is presently without a principal and vice-principal. The school’s Head of its Mathematical Department is the teacher in charge right now and will be for the rest of the week. Principal Seon is on pre-retirement leave.
The Board’s Chairman, LevelleHerelle, has acknowledged Seon tenure as principal as unmatched and gave Seon many accolades for his stewardship over the years.
Herelle, however, was not pleased with Monrose’s appearance at the school on Monday, claiming that the SLTU President was in breach of all protocols and has done a disservice to the teaching profession. He applauded students for conducting themselves in an exemplary manner on Tuesday during the sickout.