The Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT) is unhappy with comments made by Education Minister Anthony Boatswain who accused teachers of misappropriations of funds from the free School Books programme that was initiated by the 2008-2013 National Democratic Congress (NDC) government of Tillman Thomas
The programme, which came into effect for the new school year of September 2008, provided students with their books at a minimal cost of $25.
During a post-Cabinet press briefing last week Tuesday, Minister Boatswain disclosed that the programme was mired by financial irregularities on the part of school officials.
The senior government Minister told the media that between 2008 and 2011, the NDC Administration spent close to $13.6M on the free books scheme but that an audit conducted on its operations showed that in 90% of the cases studied, the money collected from the students were never turned into the Treasury.
Minister Boatswain said that in excess of $100,000 is still outstanding to the government coffers from the schoolbook programme.
He said the government has decided against implementing a recommendation made by the Audit Department for the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) and the Royal Grenada Police Force (RGPF) to be called in to investigate the financial irregularities.
President of the GUT, Lydon Lewis who appeared on the weekly “Sundays with George Grant” was disturbed over the pronouncement made by Minister Boatswain.
“You cannot accuse… our members of being thieves or misappropriating funds,” he remarked.
The GUT President believes that there is a sinister move on the part of the Education Minister to bring to the fore the problems with the schoolbooks programme because he wants to divert attention from the struggle his union had with government over the delay in their retroactive payments.
“You wait until there is a struggle with the teachers union, the same union that represent the members you accusing and bring it up now to attempt to distract and to create doubts in the minds of the public as to the legitimacy of the union asking for money. It’s just cheap psychology,” he said.
Lewis spoke of being amazed by the decision of the Keith Mitchell-led government not to allow the FIU and police to probe the alleged financial irregularities on the part of those in the teaching profession.
He said if teachers or principals are responsible for wrongdoing then allow due process to take place.
Lewis also addressed the many instances in which teachers have to dig into their own pockets to assist students and to provide financial support to many school programmes such as the school feeding program.
He pointed out that the subvention given by government to schools is often delayed and in some cases take as long as eight months before it gets to them and teachers have to find ways to keep the school system up and running.
The GUT boss accused Minister Boatswain of creating more problems rather than solving those that already exist within the Ministry of Education.
Last week, the GUT began a mild industrial action by having its members wear the union t-shirt and red armbands to demonstrate its annoyance with the Mitchell government on the non-payment of the back pay.
Lewis brushed aside accusations made in some quarters that teachers are unpatriotic and insisted that his membership took the action based on a principled position.
He chided the one-year old administration of being insensitive to the plight of teachers in the country.
According to the GUT President, he was instrumental in renegotiating the payment schedule of the retroactive pay that was previously in place with the NDC government.
He noted that the first payment that was to be made last August came one month late, the payment for November also came one month late, and now uncertainty surrounds the date for the third and final payment scheduled for the end of February.
The Mitchell government has apologised to the teachers for the delay in the payment due mainly to incomplete negotiations with an “external source” to find the estimated EC$12 million due to public officers.
Lewis indicated that the problem with government is not just about the money but the lack of respect shown to teachers.
“It is unfair to the union to call us greedy, to call us unpatriotic in these current situations,” he said.
The union boss warned that the failure of government to indicate when the payments would be made can result in an escalation of industrial action by GUT.
He said the union will not put government on notice what form the industrial action will take but they will just feel the effects of the teachers.
Lewis put parents on alert since the protest action planned will affect them and their children.
He said the GUT is hoping to avoid that course of action and urged government “to come on board” and deal with the outstanding mattes affecting teachers.