5 teachers taxpayers helped send to Hawaii in January are set to retire

Five Chignecto-Central Regional School Board teachers who attended a professional-development conference in Hawaii in January are retiring this month.

Chignecto-Central Regional School Board says approval process was followed

The website for the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort boasts a lagoon, a beach, a 'paradise pool,' and the 'longest slide in Waikiki.' (Hilton Hawaiian Village)

Last January, seven teachers from Nova Scotia's Chignecto-Central Regional School Board flew to Hawaii to attend a four-day professional-development conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort.

The post-Christmas trip, amid a work-to-rule campaign by teachers during the contract dispute with the provincial government, was partially paid for by taxpayers out of the board's $1.1-million professional development fund.

Later this month, five of those seven teachers plan to retire, CBC News has learned.

The details of the trip to the 16th annual Hawaii International Conference on Education were first reported by CBC News in January, travel that was heavily criticized by then education minister Karen Casey.

But the news that five of the teachers who attended the conference have given notice they will soon be out the door is raising questions about how the school board approved the travel and whether impending retirement should be a factor.

"It does seem odd that you would be putting a lot of money into professional development for people who were right on the cusp of retirement," said Robert Berard, a director with Mount Saint Vincent University's faculty of education.

Karen Casey was Nova Scotia's education minister until a cabinet shuffle last week. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Berard said with demands high and money tight, administrators need to seek maximum value for the dollars they spend.

"If you're trying to manage a relatively limited amount of travel money, you should at least have an idea of what the person is doing, could be doing and, again, how it will benefit the board," he said.

Each teacher entitled to $1,850

Every teacher under the Chignecto board is entitled to a maximum of $1,850 every two years from the professional development fund. This covers conference registration, hotel, airfare and baggage fees, ground transportation and meals. Teachers take the trips when school is in and the province pays for substitute teachers.

Teachers had to apply and be approved to attend the conference by a panel made up equally of Nova Scotia Teachers Union representatives and Chignecto school board representatives. 

In all, the committee approved trips for 40 Chignecto teachers over a four-month period from December 2016 to March 2017. Most were to Florida or other southern U.S. states, but some teachers also attended conferences in New York and Toronto.

'Process has been followed'

The Chignecto board is saying little about the Hawaii conference, although it confirmed that five teachers who attended will retire. Board spokesperson Darcy MacRae​ responded to a series of questions from CBC News with a one-line email.

"There is an application and approval process for attending conferences, which is in accordance with the teachers' provincial agreement, and that process has been followed," MacRae said.

CBC sent emails to all 17 elected members of the Chignecto board and received only one reply stating that MacRae would be responding.

A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Angela Murray, said: "We have no means of knowing when our members choose to retire."

Zach Churchill is Nova Scotia's new education minister. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Newly minted Education Minister Zach Churchill said in a statement that the department provides annual funding for professional development, but does not sit on the committees that approve opportunities.

"It would be our expectation that funds dedicated to professional development are directed in a way that supports teacher development and best meets the needs of Nova Scotia students," the statement said.

Although Berard is skeptical of the value of paying to send teachers for training just months before they retire, he does acknowledge one possible benefit. 

"These teachers, they may be retiring as full-time teachers but of course they're eligible to come back and substitute teach for a certain number of days a year, so it would be difficult to make a strong argument against it."

Series of questions

Berard said if he had approved expenses for teachers' conferences he'd have asked a series of questions, including the relevance of the conference.

"I'd want to know what the teacher was doing there. Was the teacher involved in making a presentation? Was the teacher involved in taking part in a workshop? Was the teacher just simply a conference participant, there to hear talks and presentations by other people? And if so what was the content of the conference?

"Is it actually helpful and relevant to the work that the teacher is doing for the school board?"