ANDOVER — The teachers' union is seeking a court injunction against school administrators to stop them from interviewing teachers as part of an investigation into allegations of a "hostile work environment" at the South Elementary School.
The Andover Education Association, or AEA, said in a statement released Tuesday night that the investigation by Principal Tracy Crowley and Assistant Principal Kathleen Caron, along with Superintendent Sheldon Berman and the town's labor attorney, is "both absurd and outside the law."
The administration's reason for doing the investigation, according to an email by Crowley and Caron on Monday and another from Berman on Wednesday, was that the "hostile work environment" was a result of teachers fighting among themselves.
"These allegations involve conduct during the contractual work day at South and include allegations by educators and staff that they have been mistreated by some of their colleagues," Berman said in an email to parents Wednesday morning.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, said AEA President Matthew Bach.
"In fact, a hostile work environment does exist at South Elementary School," he said in the statement. "But it is not the result of our members' professional actions or conduct. Rather, those responsible for instilling a school climate and culture of low morale, disrespect and fear are all operating in the ... administration."
Bach said that the investigation currently involves 20 of the 40 teachers at the school. One by one, they are being taken out of their classrooms at the 55 Woburn St. school, and forced to go to the district's administrative offices on Bartlet Street. There, they are interviewed by the town's labor lawyer. Bach said some of the teachers have been informed they may face disciplinary action, in which case they can bring a union representative with them for the interview.
Instead of an investigation, Bach calls it an "intimidation tactic" being used to bully teachers so that they will stop taking part in legal union activities.
Bach said as soon as he came on as president of the AEA last summer, he was approached by teachers at South who "immediately wanted to speak to me about the environment at South being one of intimidation and mistreatment by management and they wanted to do something about it."
He said teachers "wanted to become more active in the union to make the school be a better place for learning" so they began holding meetings to discuss how to respond to the negative atmosphere in the school.
Bach said Crowley then "interrogated people about what happened during union meetings, which is unlawful. We put the principal on notice. We told her to cease and desist questioning teachers about union meetings and we filed an unfair labor practice on that with the state." That grievance with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations is still pending, he said.
Meanwhile, the teacher-leaders of the union decided to conduct a "climate survey" of the school to see what people felt about administrators in the building, Bach said.
That, apparently, was the last straw.
"That was the thing that initiated the response from the administration" which has turned into an investigation into a "hostile workplace," he said. "We maintain that the district, not just her, targeted the union reps who decided to conduct the survey."
In a statement to parents Wednesday morning, Berman paints a different picture, saying that administrators had "received allegations from teachers and staff of a hostile work environment among educators at South Elementary School."
He added that the district "takes all allegations of a hostile work environment seriously no matter who is alleged to have engaged in the misconduct. We investigate these allegations, and where appropriate, work to remedy the situation and provide corrective action to establish and maintain a professional work environment for all of our employees."
He said the allegations required a response.
"We understand that parents and others in our community may find these allegations hard to believe, but when our educators and staff bring these concerns to our attention, we need to investigate," he said. "To do otherwise would not be respectful of our employees and would not comply with our policies."
Bach, meanwhile, said the Massachusetts Teachers' Association has gotten involved in the dispute and is seeking "injunctive relief" against the district over the investigation and interviews with teachers.
He said the state union would issue a press release as soon as a judge rules on the complaint, which could be within a week or so.
Next week, he said, a rally has been scheduled for the Tuesday afternoon at South school as a show of support for the teachers.
"It's going to be a positive event," he said. "There will be teachers from other buildings, community members, retired teachers and others to make our colleagues at South know their colleagues throughout the district are supporting them and their students."