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Teachers union president's dismissal sparks protest in Concord

Posted by John Swinconeck  May 15, 2013 10:54 AM

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John Swinconeck for Your Town
Amelia Stubblebine of Concord waves a sign during a protest against practices of Concord's school boards and administration regarding alleged mistreatment of teachers.

CONCORD — Several hundred protestors, including many parents, gathered in Monument Square on Tuesday to rally around Concord teachers who contend their voice has been bullied into silence by the school administration.

The catalyst for the protest was the decision by Thoreau Elementary School Principal Kelly Clough not to renew the contract of veteran third grade teacher and Concord Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy.

Barbara Lehn has been a teacher with Concord's school system for 25 years. She said she has known Najimy since she was hired 18 years ago. She said the idea that Najimy could have been found deficient in every single area of her evaluation as suspect and "laughable."

"The evaluation system that exists has been misused and abused," Lehn said. "It's not because of her teaching, but because she is president of the Concord Teachers Association. … Merrie has been an exemplary teacher."

The action against Najimy is just the latest blow to the relationship between Concord teachers, and a group of parents who support them, the School Committee and administration.

On April 22, Town Meeting rejected a warrant article, brought forth by citizens petition, urging Concord's two school boards to "make new changes in the central administration of the school department to ensure a good faith effort toward greater transparency and fiscal responsibility."

Teachers and parents both referred to the 2012 TELL Mass survey of Massachusetts schools. According to TELL Mass, only 10 percent of Thoreau teachers agreed that there was an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the school; and only 18.5 percent said they thought that school leadership consistently supports teachers.

Speaking to the Concord School Committee Tuesday after the rally, resident Cheryl Kirkpatrick told the school board that issues were not isolated only to Thoreau School. She cited the low MassTell rankings, and stated that the district needs to start measuring climate every year.

Parent Kathryn Oh warned the administration and the school committee that parents would stand by Najimy, should her contract not be renewed.

"As parents, we will stand by her to the very end," Oh said. "We will hold all of you accountable, for all the pain and suffering [inflicted] upon the teacher and us, the community. Because we are suffering now."

Speaking to the School Committee, Concord resident and former school committee member Paul Horwitz, said "something's wrong with the process."

"People elected to this committee need to seriously think about that. It's not a question about whether we agree or disagree with your decisions. … It's the atmosphere in which we communicate. That's not the Concord way."

"Of course we're disappointed and discouraged about it," Superintendent Diana Rigby said, after the School Committee had adjourned. "We work really hard to promote teacher leadership, and we just have to work a different way for teachers to be more satisfied."

According to Rigby, each school is analyzing TELL Mass data to identify areas of improvement. Rigby said she is also working with the teacher's union on analyzing the data as well as "reviewing strategies to implement to increase teacher leadership opportunities."

Rigby said, “We're asking the teachers, 'What's not working, why not, and what would you do differently?'"

Najimy said in an interview that there has been a change in the past few years as to how the administration relates to its teachers. Increasingly, she said, teacher expertise has been marginalized, and the superintendent's leadership style has left many teachers out of the decision-making process.

"We want a relationship with the administration and the School Committee," Najimy said. "We just want our expertise to be acknowledged."

As to her own future, Najimy said she remained "cautiously optimistic" that, with two newly elected Concord School Committee members — Johanna Boynton and Kathleen Snook — that the administration could be instructed listen to teacher concerns.

Thoreau third-grade teacher Brad Bennette was not so optimistic, and said that, after 17 years of teaching, he's had enough. Bennett announced to protestors that he was resigning "in large part because of the corroded climate" of the district. He said he would not be returning, citing mistreatment of teachers and parents.

Teachers, he said, have become targets of the district's "union-busting" strategy.

"Respect is a two-way street," said protestor Kerry Barber, of Concord. "That's not what we're seeing in schools these days. Teachers are not feeling respected by the administration. They deserve so much more."

"I want to see accountability from the School Committee," Barber said.

"Teachers have noticed there was an erosion in our voice," said Matthew Goldberg, president of the Concord-Carlisle Teachers Association. Goldberg said that the administration has lacked transparency in areas ranging from the proposed demolition of the school's transportation building, to so-called top-down initiatives. "Merrie's situation highlights that."

Concord-Carlisle High School social studies teacher Johanna Glazer objected to mandates that were distributed by leadership with little input by teachers to the curriculum.

"The message we're hearing from the administration is that teachers don't matter," she said.

John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@gmail.com.

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John Swinconeck for Your Town
Merrie Najimy speaks to supporters during a protest Tuesday in Concord.

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