By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Bahamas Union of Teachers and the government are set to battle in court today over the latter's alleged "failure" to resolve ongoing health and safety issues at two schools, with the union's attorney warning: "This is not a game".
Kahlil Parker told reporters his client is seeking to have Justice Bernard Turner compel the Ministry of Education to "comply" with its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the union and "agree to a contingency plan" to resolve the "disturbances".
Mr Parker claimed that to date, rather than "engaging substantively with the union", the government - via the Ministry of Education - has "determined to obstruct" the union in its bid to have the outstanding matters remediated.
That antagonism, Mr Parker said, has materialised in the government filing an application before the Supreme Court in a bid to have the teachers to "go back to work without the due process that is required of them by the CBA and the (Industrial Relations Act)".
"So the irony is that now they are saying that we haven't complied when in fact, as has been demonstrated in the public forum, they have not allowed us to do that which is necessary to verify that, for example, CH Reeves is safe for teachers and students to return," Mr Parker said.
However, the Bahamas Bar Association president said what he finds "highly disturbing" is the government's "principle objection" to resolving the matters, that "the press is present at the schools".
"When the minister wants to tour and celebrate, he brings the press," Mr Parker said. "When he wants to lambaste the union, he brings the press. When it's time to demonstrate that the schools are fit and proper, the press cannot come.
"So my point is that while I did not seek to have the press there, the reality is that this is a public matter, and you have to contend with public interest. So that is not a good reason to abandon your obligations under the Act to engage with the union to resolve these matters."
Today's court matter stems from the outstanding concerns highlighted by teachers at both the Carlton Francis Primary School and the CH Reeves Junior High School.
For weeks, teachers at the latter school have been protesting against the "unsanitary" conditions on that campus, citing the presence of mould as one of the key concerns. And concerning Carlton Francis Primary, BUT president Belinda Wilson previously said that for eight weeks to date, teachers reported to work only to be locked out at the gate.
Thus, she said the teachers have not been allowed on their jobs and their salaries consequently cut. And those comments by Mrs Wilson came after a meeting with the Attorney General's office and the MOE's staff at CH Reeves that was cancelled without warning.
Mr Parker seconded those claims yesterday, saying: "When we attempt to meet at the school with staff, we are locked out of the gate. The ministry doesn't want to meet. They find these technical reasons to object to the meeting, and therefore we are not able to agree this contingency plan and therefore the disturbances perpetuate and continue unabated.
"Unfortunately you cannot have resolution where both parties are not prepared to sit down and engage with each other."
He added: "I have seen the consistent cry that the teachers are not prepared and what not, but the reality is that health and safety is a serious concern. Mould is a serious concern. These things are throughout the public service and the government has to realise that we have to take our people's health seriously.
"You have the Minister of Education talking about type two diabetes. One of the indicators that research has shown with respect to the onset of adult type two diabetes is airborne debris and exposure to airborne mould.
"So we have to begin to really engage with these serious issues. This is not a game. This is the health and safety (of workers). And remember that the children are in these classrooms."
Last month, while speaking to reporters outside Cabinet, Education Minister Jeff Lloyd said his ministry is seeking to resolve whatever outstanding issues the teachers have.
"I'm advised that there were concerns with regards to classroom space," he said at the time. "That matter, I'm advised, has been resolved. I was also advised that teachers were unhappy about having to float... from one classroom to the next. I understand that matter too is being resolved. The principal, along with the district superintendent and our main offices, are seeking to address that."
Mr Lloyd added that he is "painfully disappointed" that the processes outlined for disagreements between union members and the Ministry of Education were not followed in this case.
Nonetheless, Mr Lloyd said if the industrial agreement in question is no longer serving its purpose, all parties need to sit down and come to a new agreement.
"This is deeply troubling; it is troubling because, one, we have an agreement. That agreement should be respected, if that agreement and its terms no longer serve the purpose for which it was originally intended and it does not serve those purposes today, they're adults, we are reasonable, intelligent and smart people," he said.