Colombo Telegraph

Belief In The Worth Of Teachers At S. Thomas’ Colleges

By Panini Edirisinhe

Panini Edirisinhe

There has been much recent discussion of the role of Private Schools and their place in the social fabric of Sri Lanka. The touching story of the Kuliyapitiya Boy, Rahul, clearly illustrated the effectiveness with which a private Anglican school was able to resolve an issue that the country was agonising over.

These Anglican schools are among the best in the country, yet I see them beset with many a vexed question in their running. The greatest anxiety appears to be regarding the staffing of these schools. The school at Mt Lavinia has the fewest such problems and I see this as being because there is a neat and clear system of administration. The OBA is active and has two members on the fifteen member Board of Governors, while the Staff elect one member. How these elections are to take place is clearly laid out here.

These are rules that can be changed by the Board itself, but it is good that they are rarely tampered with, although my intention is to draw attention to some sections which need, urgently, to be changed.

The very special role that these schools used to play is reflected in this Ordinance which can be changed only by An Act of Parliament, and amending it is hardly ever considered.

In early January 2016, the Staff of the College at Mt Lavinia unanimously elected Mr Channa Asela de Silva, as their Representative on the Board, with no interference from the Administration. There often is a contest for this election and only an Anglican who is not an employee can be elected. This year, nobody ran against Channa who had been an exemplary teacher of Mathematics and had retired early to continue his teaching privately.

Long before the Annual General Meeting of the OBA on Friday, the 13th of February, all members of the OBA received profiles of the six proposed and seconded candidates. The conduct of the elections with printed ballot papers, ballot boxes etc. could hardly have been improved upon.

However, there have by now arisen a multitude of problems over how the three Branch Schools elect two Board Members to represent them – one to represent the three OBAs, and the other to represent the “Tutorial and Administrative Staffs” of the three schools. The OBAs are at least conscious of their rights, but the Staff Representatives have always been “appointed” in questionable ways, although “the election shall be by secret ballot”. I had been discussing the conduct of these elections informally with the present Bishop of Colombo even before he had been formally inducted.

The elections for the Branch Schools this year were pushed back almost as far as possible, to “The Ides of March” (the 15th of March 2016); the new Board Members are to serve four years beginning on April Fools’ Day. I wrote formally to the Bishop, the Secretary to the Board, and the three Headmasters, “with copies to the staffs of the relevant schools” as long ago as the 23rd of November, stating that I could be considered a candidate, and asking what procedure was to be followed. I kept inquiring from the Headmasters on various occasions, but there was no official intimation of any sort.

The Headmaster of the Gurutalawa school is currently overseas, and he held the elections very fairly and impartially in early February 2016. It now appears that they alone, for the third successive time, held an election transparently and by secret ballot. I happen to live very close to the Bandarawela school, and I kept trying to persuade the Headmaster to have proper elections; those he promised but refused to divulge details. There were three declared candidates: Mr Chrishmal Warnasuriya, Mr Christopher Gonawela, and myself. I have spoken to both the others today, the 16th of March, and we are all agreed that our primary goal was not our personal election, but ensuring that the contest was conducted properly.

When I consulted a leading lawyer, who, like me had been a student in three of the four Thomian schools, on the 1st of March, he told me that I couldn’t define myself in to being a candidate, and that at this election, given the poor wording of the Rules, only the voters had rights. I immediately wrote to the Headmasters in Bandarawela and Kollupitiya telling them that given such an interpretation of the Rules, I would patiently sit it out for them to conduct fair elections.

The Headmasters of all three schools are Anglican priests and I have met them all and cordially discussed these elections with them, but I regret to state that it was only the election at Gurutalawa that I was satisfied with. I have a particularly affable relationship with the Headmaster at Bandarawela, but now it is with his “performance” that I am most dis-satisfied with.

When the e-mail I sent him got returned, I sent him a text message. As a measure of the inexplicablity of his conduct here are the texts of two Dialog sms messages:
Friday, 04/03/2016 4.20 p.m from me to Fr Christopher Balraj (his mobile number:+9477xxxxxxx):

“Please check ur email address. What I sent you 2 days ago has bounced & no sign of delivery. Also the school website seems inaccessible. Not really a complaint.”

His response from the same phone on Saturday, 05/03/2016 at 8.15 a.m.

“All email with school Managed by moratuwa uni has been blocked by SLT because the uni has not made the payments due to SLT I am told”

I am currently in Colombo, having left Bandarawela satisfied that a staff meeting was at last being held, on Thursday, the 10th March, to decide the election in a fitting way. Alas, many members of the Bandarawela staff are now furious. They had been told that Board Member to represent the staff had to be elected, but that the Bandarawela school would merely follow the lead given by the other two schools. Two delegates had, however, to be nominated. The Secretary to the school, a retired non-commissioned officer of the Airforce, agreed to represent the Administrative Staff. As for the Tutorial Staff, senior teacher after senior teacher, when requested to go, absolutely refused to go, saying that they had seen farcical elections enough during their service, and that this time they wanted a proper election. Finally, one of the few Old Boys on the staff had agreed to travel down to Kollupitiya on the Ides of March.

Reports I now receive suggest that there’s even more fury after the staff heard what had happened. It had been the Secretary-delegate, who had proposed the name of a man who had never been known to be a candidate, although the mandate he received at the Staff Meeting had been to agree to what came from the other two schools. Kollupitiya seconded. Gurutalawa just looked foolishly on. Obviously, making things even worse was the fact that a man with absolutely no academic qualifications (no, not even O. Levels) has been named the Staff Representative!

I have already received a protest letter sent by one of the other “declared” candidates and I have spoken briefly with both. Where do we go from here? I just don’t know; at least we can console ourselves that this reflects many other things in our world today!

I have been as objective as possible and avoided naming names. However, if any reader were to pose questions I shall respond with as many details as I am certain of. As Old Boys (aged ones, really), we desire no more than seeing the current teachers of the schools treated with respect; and I, for one, will not be satisfied with less!

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