Government response to pay deduction ‘misses the point’

Local psychologist Todd Kettner dismayed by Christy Clark's initial response to viral letter.

Dr. Todd Kettner isn’t especially interested in being a mouthpiece.

Last Wednesday the Nelson school psychologist typed an open letter addressed to Christy Clark that has since gone viral on social media and prompted stories from media outlets province-wide. Kettner was docked $598.82 for job action, even though he had recently completed 70 hours of unpaid overtime to help residents of New Denver cope with their grief after a canoe mishap claimed the lives of four youths.

“Honestly, when I wrote that letter I was hoping you guys at the Nelson Star would pick it up and if I was lucky then maybe the CBC would be interested in it,” he said. “I’m a little overwhelmed by the people who’ve been interested.”

Kettner said he hopes the attention can be funnelled away from him and towards the issues facing a province with the country’s highest child poverty rate. Rather than being the face of the movement, he hopes he can be a catalyst for future dialogue.

“We all work hard. Better services need to happen for kids in this province. And that’s not just an education ministry challenge. That’s my personal challenge,” he said. “There are a lot of good things happening, but the services aren’t coordinated enough to serve kids well.”

In the meantime, Kettner has been informed that his overtime will be recognized and he will be exempt from this particular job action pay docking. According to a statement released by the Ministry of Education last week, “BCPSEA is granting an exemption to reduction of pay due to trauma and safety issues.”

“The normal practice for counsellors in SD 8 is that if they work excessive hours they get these hours compensated later in form of lieu time. This will occur in Mr. Kettner’s case. With respect to the 10 per cent, because payroll had to get out and the hours of the strike must be done on the May payroll, all teachers had their pay reduced by 10 per cent. Then afterwards, any exemptions/anomalies will be take care of and corrected. Mr. Kettner is one of those corrections.”

According to Kettner, this solves precisely nothing.

“There’s a little misunderstanding in that Thursday the local school board informed me face-to-face, and their first concern, honestly, was ‘how’re you doing?’” he said. “What they told me was that the 10 per cent (pay cut) would be reversed. The way I understood it, which may be my misunderstanding, was that the government had shifted their position for everyone. I had no idea it was just for me.”

Kettner only learned the truth when a journalist called him on Saturday for his comment.

“My response to that was ‘really?’…You think someone would take the time to write that letter saying it’s not just about education, it’s about child poverty, it’s about coordinated services for children and youth, it’s about the hard-working clinical counsellors who are on call 24-7…and you think it’s okay if you give me my paycheque back?”

Kettner agreed with an online commenter who said the Ministry of Education has missed the point. He said the move was clearly damage control. When asked what an appropriate response would be, Kettner hesitated.

“I don’t know. It would’ve helped if they had just reversed what seems to me to be a punitive 10 per cent. I mean, I have no problem losing a day’s pay if I’m striking. If I’m striking, we all know the rules. Don’t pay me for that day,” he said.

But the circumstances around the teachers strike have left many confused by what they are and aren’t supposed to be doing, he said. Seeing the docked pay, which was for job action that hadn’t even taken place yet, was a “tipping point” for him.

“I’m a salaried employee and I have no qualms about working when I need to work. That’s not the point.”

The point, instead, is making sure that children and community members receive the assistance and support they need. The tragedy in New Denver is a perfect example of how school district employees are using creative problem-solving to overcome inadequate budgets, under-staffing and lack of communication, he said.

Kettner received news of the Slocan Lake tragedy via text from his colleague in New Denver on a Sunday morning weeks ago.

“She told me what happened and I was brainstorming with her for a bit. I asked ‘would it help if I came up there?’ She said ‘yes, please’.”

He said this is an example of jurisdictional boundaries becoming irrelevant, and that because he had a personal relationship with his colleague he was able to assist in ways some others might not be able to. He said his bosses “trust me to do what I need to do when I need to do it,” but there are many others in the education system without the same freedom.

Walking down the street in New Denver, Kettner said the trauma response was immediately apparent.

“I’ve experienced first hand walking down the street and in that first week people just had a glazed look on their face. Walking up and down the street. In the school kids were all huddled together, some of them crying, some of them blank-faced. Those are expected trauma responses,” he said.

Kettner praised the collaborative efforts of the RCMP, the school administrators and a variety of medical and mental health professionals who teamed up to help the community. He said the resilience of the community was inspiring, and reminded him of why he decided to become a psychologist in the first place. He said getting communities the support they need isn’t “necessarily incumbent on someone in Victoria.”

“Instead it’s us, on the ground, who need to take this as a learning opportunity. If this sort of thing happens again in, say, Creston, how do we coordinate more easily and fluently?”

Kettner said he’s encouraged by the response from New Denver residents.

“I think they’re coming together. That’s the resilience of the human spirit. All I did and all the other counsellors did was encourage that. Having community meetings at the school for updates from the RCMP… I thought that was a brilliant strategy. In small villages and communities, the school becomes a modern-day church or temple. It’s a gathering point, a focal point for the community,” he said. He observed a number of healing ceremonies on the beach as well.

However, communication with the government isn’t as encouraging. Though Kettner feels supported by his local and provincial employers, he said he’s disappointed how Premier Christy Clark has handled the current situation.

“I don’t feel supported by the current government and I don’t think it’s helpful, from a social, psychological perspective, to talk about left or right, this party or that party… but when people make comments about her kid being in private school, what does she know? That’s not helpful. If she wants to send her kid to private school, that’s fine with me. For people to knock her because of that gets into ‘I know you are but what am I?’ Let’s talk about the issues here. That’s what gets lost in a situation like this,” he said.

“Let’s look at the science around class size,” he said. “Let’s look at the science around employee engagement and employee wellness. Let’s remember we’re a democracy and people should be allowed to speak and shouldn’t have to go through Victoria to get their speaking notes,” he said.

Kettner said he would welcome a response from Clark.

“I haven’t in the past and currently don’t have a relationship with Christy Clark but I’d be happy to chat with her if she wanted to contact me in any way.”

Kettner said he’s able to talk about these issues because he doesn’t have much to lose. If fired, he can return to his private practice. Other school employees don’t have the same luxury he has to speak his mind. So, reluctantly, he’s trying to do it for them.

“We have to keep talking, and keep listening.”


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