Long simmering tensions between a local Secaucus’ teachers union and Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina surfaced at a Jan. 19 Board of Education meeting when union president Bob Anderson announced that the union had again given a vote of “no confidence” in her leadership skills.
The vote of “no confidence” revealed unresolved tensions that have existed between the union and Randina since the school board appointed her in 2008. The Secaucus Education Association, the union that represents teachers, clerks, and custodians, had also given her a vote of “no confidence” in 2010. The vote is not legally binding, but allows the union to officially make its feelings known.
At the recent Thursday meeting, Randina gave a glowing report on the state of the school district. But when she finished her speech, it was met with silence from a gym packed with union members, administrators, teachers, town officials, and parents.
Randina reported that SAT scores were up, technology enhancements have increased efficiency, the district continues to provide leadership in the county in social and emotional development programs, and the district has saved money through salary reductions and departmental reorganizations.
The vote revealed tensions that have existed since her 2008 appointment.
He also presented the board with a list of 26 items the union wants to see addressed.
A month after the first vote of “no confidence” in June of 2010, the school board passed a resolution expressing “complete and unequivocal confidence in and satisfaction with the superintendent’s performance.”
At the recent meeting, some board members expressed a willingness to work together and move forward, others expressed frustration, and some said they continue to support Randina.
Board members Joseph Lewis and Gary Riebesell said that thanks to the list of 26 items, they now have something in writing that the board can move forward to address. Member Tom Troyer said he fully supported the superintendent. Others like MaryAnne Weiner and Charles Krajewski expressed great frustration and said that people on the street have misinformation about the situation at hand, while Dora Marra and Jack McStowe said that the union members have repeatedly refused to meet with the board to discuss underlying issues.
In her speech, Randina mentioned several accomplishments that are nevertheless controversial issues among the union. For instance, the district was one of 10 chosen by Gov. Christopher Christie to participate and receive $72,000 in state funds for a teacher evaluation pilot program. But the program has come under heavy criticism by the union for basing half the teacher evaluation on student assessments that include test scores.
Randina said the district continues to adhere to Department of Education policy in regard to class size despite cuts to the school budget after the public voted it down last year.
Disagreement over hiring practices and class sizes
At the meeting, Anderson also resigned as president of the union and announced his candidacy for the school board.
Among Anderson’s complaints was a recent hiring of an out-of-towner. Anderson said in an interview after the meeting that the hire for the job of manager of buildings and grounds “finally sent the SEA over the edge.” He said there were three qualified people in town that could perform the job, but instead, someone from Jersey City was hired.
He charged that Randina fails to post all vacant positions and that the job descriptions miss important information such as listing a salary.
He complained that the school district should not be hiring for administrative positions when the classrooms in the district are overcrowded.
“We have gone from a town where class sizes on an average were 18 and 19 [and] where now they are 24, 25, and 26,” he claimed.
Anderson said last week before the school board meeting that teachers are afraid to speak up about issues in the district, and that Randina had tried to intimidate him.
Randina responded, after the meeting, “If I was writing teachers up for insubordination, then they would be fearful, but there is no evidence of that. Basically what he wants to do is indict me.”
Raising issues of trust
Anticipation of Anderson’s announcement about the no-confidence vote set the stage for a heated and tense meeting. Anderson, a retired teacher, taught at Clarendon Elementary School for 33 years.
“The lack of leadership by Mrs. Randina has led to mistrust,” he said during the meeting. “Many members feel they have no voice and are afraid of reprisals if they speak up.”
The union vote took place on Jan. 13 and was 168-23 against the superintendent.
Anderson said the SEA was acting on behalf of the staff, parents, and children of Secaucus in denouncing the leadership skills of the superintendent. He complained that the board “did not attempt to ask or find out what problems were” after the 2010 vote.
He said the school board accused him of not liking women, and the former school board president accused him of stuffing the ballot boxes.
Personnel issue surfaces
Union members walked out of the meeting after Board President Salvatore Manente publicly charged that Anderson orchestrated the recent vote against Randina because he had allegedly been written up by principals Linda Wilhelm and Fred Ponti in the past in regard to lesson plans – a personnel matter that some said was confidential.
Manente even said that Anderson told Randina at a private meeting that the vote was being taken because he had been written up.
“In good faith [Randina] tore [the infractions] up and threw them out,” said Manente.
As Manente spoke during the meeting, Anderson shouted from the back of the room, “You don’t even know what you are talking about…know your facts! By the way – this is confidential information!”
Manente said that since Anderson is no longer employed by the school district, it was no longer confidential.
Anderson left the room, as did many members of the union.
Manente also accused Anderson of failing to represent teachers when needed. “I found that when a teacher has a problem he doesn’t represent anybody,” he said. “We had two teachers who were in trouble. He didn’t show up. Yet Mrs. Randina settled it...SEA was not there to represent these people…I don’t know what you are paying dues for. You have a problem.”
Both parties claim failure in communication
While the union said that teachers fear communication with the superintendent, several school board members and the superintendent said that the union has refused to speak to them and that teachers have not individually voiced any concerns.
At the meeting, Randina blamed the union for undermining the school board by their refusal to follow process and procedure to address issues.
“I talk with teachers, and have been told repeatedly that all is well, that there are no concerns,” she said. “I ask principals if there are any issues that have not been resolved. I have been assured that none exist.”
She listed several ways to air issues, from informal communication to formal grievance procedures, none of which she said were adhered to by the union.
“Mr. Anderson has refused to meet with me in spite of frequent and undying requests…In three years I have been a superintendent, there have been no grievances!” said Randina. “Individual grievances should come to me first not to the board. The board is the last group to resolve the issue. I have a problem this evening with grievances being handed to the Board of Education and I have not seen them and I have not been allowed to remediate them for the benefit of the teachers, the staff, and the students of Secaucus. I have not been permitted to alleviate these grievances.”
Anderson said during the meeting that the complaints were not grievances, but “items.”
Randina asked the union to stop shutting her out and to confront their issues face to face.
“I am open to communicate anytime [and] any place,” she said. “I extend it to the SEA. I extend it to the entire community.”
A year left on superintendent’s contract
Anderson said last week that he doesn’t want the school board to renew Randina’s contract, which will be up for renewal in the next academic year.
Manente said after the meeting that the school board is not ending Randina’s contract in the near future, but, “She may turn around and just leave because she has to take a hundred thousand dollar cut.” He said that the governor has put a cap on what superintendents earn, given the size of the population within the district.
The limit is $150,000 for Secaucus. Randina would theoretically earn $250,000 next year without it, so she may not be willing to accept a new, much lower contract. He said the board will begin conversations in October regarding her contract.
After the meeting, Randina said, “I think that what I would like to do is to weigh all of my options.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.