Saba Comprehensive School (SCS) Principal Hemmie van Xanten speaks out, convinced as he is that “all means of internal communication have been exhausted” in mediating the standoff with the school board. This writes The Daily Herald.
Tensions flared at SCS in March, resulting in students initiating public protests and calling on the board of Saba Educational Foundation (SEF) to meet with them and explain their actions. SEF took the controversial decision not to renew the contracts of the principal, four teachers and some administrative staff without explaining why. SEF also refused to meet with protesting students, parents and staff and declined to issue any statements why. The decision affects over a quarter of all teaching staff. In solidarity with those being sacked, two more teachers have tendered their resignations. Several additional teachers are actively seeking alternative employment off-island. The Labour Department refuses to get involved saying it does not have the authority to protect employees’ rights since SEF is a foundation.
Van Xanten claims 13 SCS employees had individually approached the Labour Department since 2012, with complaints against the SEF board with no response other than that the complaints were forwarded to the Ministry of Education. The principal claims all mediation via the ministry and ministerial inspectors have failed. Letters from parents and the Netherlands Institute for Curriculum Development SLO have also been ignored. “The ministry does not want to intervene, yet SEF proceeded to select a new principal without publicly announcing any vacancy in local media.” Van Xanten said such actions were unlikely without the support of the ministry’s Caribbean Netherlands representative Reynolds “Nolly” Oleana.
Van Xanten stressed that SEF’s decision could not have any objective basis. “This is not based on any performance or factual evaluation and is simply an emotional outcome of personal vendettas.” He said job descriptions were in place and performance evaluation protocols were set up, but none of these bi-annual formal observations have been followed by the board and this is why both SEF and Oleana refused public statements about their decisions.
Both Van Xanten and Oleana were members of the Education Task Force together with Commissioner Chris Johnson in 2012, which envisioned greater local stakeholder involvement in the school’s identity. The three-member SEF board was appointed by this task force and Van Xanten was subsequently appointed as principal. Van Xanten feels SCS management has delivered on the objectives of local accountability pointing to the unprecedented student demonstrations against the ousting of valued teachers.
In 2013, the SEF board issued public allegations of corruption against the principal in securing uniforms. Parents’ representative on the SEF board, Julio Every, resigned first forcing the other two board members Tabetha Hassell-Peterson and Raquel Granger to resign after the allegations could not be proven to inquiring parents. Oleana brought Granger and Peterson back on the SEF board. A mediator was installed to develop documents outlining the SEF board’s proper responsibilities. Such statutes existed before the incident, but had been “dumped by the board” Van Xanten said. Instead the board started eliminating consultations with management.
The untenable situation reached a climax when the board discarded the biannual personnel reviews and verbally informed the principal of which teachers had to go. Asking why, he was told that “maybe we want to go in a different direction.” Van Xanten said that in addition to having been accused of corruption, he has been shouted at and bullied by board members. “I have witnesses of when board members put me in my place,” he said. “We have witnessed teachers being physically and verbally attacked outside the graduation ceremony hall by board members accusing them in public about wrongly distributing trophies to teachers. We have witnessed board members talking publicly in restaurants about teachers’ salaries. All this created a situation of mistrust that endangers the continuation of the students’ education.”
Teachers were refused a general meeting with SEF; instead, SEF imposed mandatory individual meetings with teachers. None of the grievances voiced in such meeting received a response. Next SEF requested the installation of a factory time-punch clock for monitoring teachers, Van Xanten stated. Then SEF decided to send students to a career fair in St. Maarten during school hours without informing the principal. During this incident he succumbed to mounting psychological pressure and had to receive medical treatment taking time off.
Van Xanten holds Oleana responsible for the mounting pressures of the SEF board. He said these “irresponsible actions” have consequences and a number of parents who can afford to do so have already made preparations for their children to continue their education abroad. A number of parents of primary school children have written to ask if there will be a school with teachers to receive their graduating children, he claimed.