Letter to the Editor: Montserrat's PTA President Tells of Tough Conditions Students and Teachers Face at The Montserrat Secondary School

So we wait to see if the desired changes will be made during the impending budget debate.

Letter to the Editor: Montserrat's PTA President Tells of Tough Conditions Students and Teachers Face at The Montserrat Secondary School

Dear Editor,

This letter serves to enlighten the general public of the present situation that has left teachers, parents and students of the Montserrat Secondary School quite distressed. It is hope that you would lend us your support as we seek to urgently act on the matter.

At the beginning of the 2018/2019 academic year, an emergency PTA meeting was called to alert the group of a report from a consultant, tasked with assessing the structural integrity of the Government buildings. We were told that two buildings at the MSS were reported to be unsuitable for use. Six classrooms and two labs were shut down. Eight teachers and students from every year group were displaced on the second day of the first term. There was much effort by the ministry officials and management of the school to find temporary solutions to the problems that resulted. We were told the buildings would be demolished and basically it was assumed the work to better the situation would have been undertaken during the school year. In March 2019, the PTA requested an update as to the plans to remedy the situation, we were told the buildings would be demolished in April. One can understand that a false sense of hope was forged assuming the Ministry of Education was working in the background to get the job done at some point. It is obvious that funds should have been made available. That sense of hope carried on even though the buildings were not demolished as promised.

However, at the latest meeting of the PTA body on Thursday, 16 May, 2019, hope dissipated when we were made aware that no funds had been secured and budgeted to deal with the matter. For further evidence that we were not mistaken, I would like to reference a section from the Government’s Budget Statement 2019-2020:

85.  This year Montserrat Secondary School celebrates its 80th year as a comprehensive secondary learning institution. Yet in the midst of our celebration, we were forced to decommission two of the school buildings on the current Salem site due to discovering structural building faults. Despite this, our teachers have shown grace and fortitude to deliver for the young minds of our future. I want to assure them, along with parents and children, that we are working tirelessly to find a funded solution for the medium and long term that will provide the greater capacity that our secondary school environment deserves.

86.  In the meantime, we have forged ahead making repairs and upgrades to the physical school plant at all schools, including the MSS. This includes painting, fencing, plumbing and other critical upgrades to improve the safety and resilience of our school environments for staff and students alike.

On the surface the words of the statement sound sweet, but just as cotton candy is simply sweet, colored puffy sugar with no substance, that’s the taste those words leave in my mouth. I think we can all deduce from the first section that since funding is ‘being’ sought, the project was not deemed significant enough for the government to fund, in this current budget. Basically, the grace and fortitude of our teachers and the quiet, assumed acceptance of the parents and students were considered enough to ensure all goes well for the children referred to as “the young minds of our future”, but is it really so?

Furthermore, lest we assume section 86 would cover the urgent short term solutions, I would like to propose that usually a statement would list the most significant repairs and upgrade. Although painting, fencing and plumbing are welcomed, they rank very low on the totem pole of urgent needs of the MSS, directly related to the decommissioning of the two buildings.

As the President of the MSS PTA, I realized that I was not only tasked to deal with the parents’ reaction, but also those of the teachers. As such, my first act was to meet with the teachers on Friday, 17 May, 2019, so as to get an in depth view of the situation from where they sit.

The teachers were understandably furious. They indeed had been exercising admirable grace and fortitude, with the assumption that overseers of the Ministry of Education sat in their comfortable well outfitted offices, taking care of the issues that were totally under their authority.  I sensed they felt deceived and betrayed by what they had heard. To make matters worse, they were only visited once and certainly needed further updates by Ministry officials. These are the individuals who have been holding the fort in distressing circumstances, so that our future is filled with educated well-rounded individuals.

Please permit me to list some of the issues directly related to the closed buildings, which were being tolerated, while assuming the Government of Montserrat had their best interest at heart.

  • Since the staffroom is now used as a classroom,

  • Then teachers find themselves sitting in their vehicles marking books, (and eating lunch)

  • Therefore, they are in poor working position for such a task, which is considered a significant occupational health and safety hazard, and can have severe long term effects on their bodies.

  • Since the staffroom bathrooms are consequently not convenient to use at times,

  • Then the shortage of toilets is further escalated,

  • Therefore, embarrassing and disastrous situations have been experienced (as was passionately detailed).

  • Since the two science labs have been closed and a compressed space is being used

  • Then the science School Based Assessments have been slowed down

  • Therefore, frustrated teachers and students as they hustle to prepare for exams.

  • I cannot ignore the emotional distress that was articulated, as some teachers described the move as comparable to the loss they felt relocating from the unsafe zone during the volcanic crisis. Except, this disaster is man-made.

Those are only a few of the plethora of issues. I must admit my feeling of empathy was such that I had to fight the temptation of telling the teachers let us all go immediately and camp out in the cushy offices of our well-paid elected officials and demand an explanation. However, I bowed to protocol. After all, we are supposed to be people of excellence and the teachers are the ones who, we as parents, and the country at large, expect to mirror excellence to our children, even where we fall short. Granted that those at the highest echelon of excellence also have children attending the school, leaves one to wonder, if they not aware of the deleterious impact of bad working environment on both adults and children? Where are those parents who are tasked with caressing the country’s purse strings in all of this? Are they as muzzled as the Permanent Secretary seemed to have been at the meeting?

It’s inevitable, that we are going to lose teachers because of this crisis bearing in mind that we are already struggling to have a full complement of teachers year after year. So how will all this affect our future minds? It’s no guess work that the grades of the students have and will be impacted. It is sobering to think that those we granted access to the highest level of government, could not have gauged the damaging impact that will show up in the future, because we failed to prioritize working on the learning environment for our children. Have they strategized a plan to correct the effect of their failings to these children when they are ushered into society?  Or are we waiting for the reaping of the same value we placed on them during this time of learning? As a staff of MSS rightfully said, “If we damage the children, we damage the country. We can fix the country, but can we fix the children we damaged?”

To this end, after conversing with the teachers a letter was sent to the Honorable Minister of Education and copied to members of cabinet, outlining the issues and concerns of the teachers and parents. We have asked that she considers making adjustments that would thrust the short and medium term solutions to the aforementioned matter, into priority funding within the current budget.

Additionally, we have posed some questions, such as,

  • Can the report that caused this confusion be made available to the public?

  • Can a second opinion be sought regarding the state of the condemned buildings?

  • Is it possible to fix the buildings instead of demolishing them?

To this end, at this point we have not yet received a response. Not even acknowledgement that the letter was received.

However, I have also had a meeting with the Minister of Finance on the matter. Although the answer was vague, he seemed to have taken the concerns seriously. Admittedly, some aspects of the meeting left me wondering if the escalation of the matter was been seen as a way to strategically use the teachers, parents and students as game pieces for future financial negotiations. I shudder to think that any of our elected members could be that callus and heartless, but alas I could be wrong, as we all were regarding the aforementioned matter.

So we wait to see if the desired changes will be made during the impending budget debate. It must be noted that any unfavorable response would see further action be taken by parents and teachers. I can openly declare that the teachers I spoke to were ready to take action, to which parents were being mobilized to join. However, plans were challenged by the preferred protocol proffered by the President of the Montserrat Union of Teachers (MUT). Their swift call to action should not be ignored as it hints at the brewing storm. They have no fear, but in the spirit of excellence, they too bowed to protocol, while awaiting the response of the Minister of Education.

I thank you for allowing me this opportunity to give wind to the public of how our government’s budgeting decision is affecting the Montserrat Secondary School, parents, teachers, students and by extension our entire society. The majority of our homes are been impacted by this school, as it is the only one, through which our children can attain secondary education. There is no doubt, that what affects the school will inevitably affect all of us in this country. Please let us all encourage our elected officials to adjust the budget such that monies can be made available for the expeditious remedying of the many issues created by this dilemma.

Yours truly,

Mildred Chalmers

President, MSS PTA