Leaders from the Secaucus teachers’ union and the Board of Education met last week to address long-held tensions that erupted after the union took a vote of “no confidence” in Superintendent Cynthia Randina.
Some of the Board of Education members support the work that Randina is doing, but the teachers’ union believes Randina is not communicating enough with teachers, in addition to other failings.
The union’s vote of “no confidence” does not enforce any specific changes, but lets the school board know the union’s feelings about the district leadership.
At a recent board meeting, the union’s president presented the board with a list of 26 to 27 concerns coming from the faculty. Union members want the concerns will be taken seriously by the board.
Board of Education President Sal Manente met with union Vice President Joan Cali last week to discuss the union’s issues and to set up a meeting between the school board and union representatives from each school – but the pair could not agree on who else should be included from the administration.
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But Cali insisted on a private meeting between the school board and the union before meeting with Randina because she said the issues are primarily about Randina’s failure in leadership.
Disagreement on whether to include administrators
Manente said that the nature of the union members’ questions requires that an administrator like Ron Smith or Director of Special Services Susan Smahl be present to provide deeper explanation than the superintendent is able to provide.
Cali said, “Mr. Manente said, ‘What if [Randina] can’t answer [your questions]. And I said, ‘That is the problem. She should be able to,” said Cali last week.
Cali said that Manente wanted to exclude Robert Anderson, Secaucus Education Association union president, if the union insisted that Randina could not be present. She said she conceded to having Randina at the meeting but did not want additional administrators.
Split on mayor’s offer to mediate
Manente turned down Mayor Michael Gonnelli’s offer to mediate between the union and the school administration. The mayor said at the last council meeting that he was impartial enough to mediate because he believed both sides are 100 percent wrong.
“[The mayor] won't be present at this meeting and I don't believe he will be present at any meeting,” said Manente. “He really doesn't have an education background…Usually we sit with the mayor and we get badgered. The board is a little uncomfortable with him at this point.”
“It didn’t bother me,” said Cali about the mayor’s offer. “I thought it was kind of him to take time out of his schedule.”
Resolution in sight?
If the school board and the union can agree on which individuals to include in the meeting to address the union’s issues, then they intend to meet in the coming weeks. If they can’t agree and work together to resolve the issues, Manente said that the school board will ask the state Department of Education to step in.
“Can we move ahead? I don’t know,” said Cali. “I hope they listen.”
She said that she wants the school board members to listen to the union’s concerns and to take them seriously. She said that the union has brought up the issues in the past but that “nothing ever gets resolved.”
“I think we both walked away with a sense that we can probably resolve this,” said Manente. “A lot of these items are gripes that just came up...a lot of open-ended questions.”
Communication failures and lack of trust
Cali said that in order for the union to accept that their concerns are being addressed, they have to be able to trust the administration. She gave the example that teachers were given two months to put lesson plans on an online database and were blamed for errors that she said were eventually attributed to the software management company. She said that teachers weren’t told that they were part of a “beta” testing program meant to work out the kinks in the program.
The list of union issues includes a complaint that teachers are afraid to advocate for their students due to the implication that they are being insubordinate if they do.
Manente said that the union has not used appropriate channels to sort out their concerns.
“They haven't been following the chain of command. Instead of going to the building principal, they ignore the principal, they ignore the superintendent, and go straight to the board,” said Manente.
“I haven't felt any retribution on [the superintendent’s] part,” said Manente in regard to whether the superintendent has reprimanded teachers for airing concerns.
Agreement on strength of school district
While Manente and Cali did not exactly agree on how to proceed, they did both agree on the strength of the school district.
“People are still doing their jobs. Test scores are up. You take a walk through the school buildings and you see a lot of activity going on,” said Manente.
“The teachers have been resilient and they stay focused on the student,” said Cali. “They have been totally professional even with the lack of resources in educating the students.”