ANDOVER — The School Committee and Superintendent Sheldon Berman are defending the decision to transfer three teachers from the South School, despite a letter from other teachers at the school and a petition from parents, both urging that the superintendent reverse his decision.
Berman had until just more than a week ago to reverse his decision. He did not, according to Matthew Bach, president of the Andover Education Association, .
“They (the three teachers) got a basic form letter saying the decision is final,” Bach said. “We are going to contest it through the grievance process and the Massachusetts Department of Labor.”
The dispute over the teacher reassignments — they were sent to three, separate schools in Andover — dates back more than a year, when Berman was notified that a “hostile work environment.”
Bach and others say the hostility stemmed from ongoing complaints about Principal Tracey Crowley. After the district conducted an investigation, however, Berman and others said the animosity stemmed from a handful of teachers who were demeaning toward colleagues and critical of parents.
School Committee Chairwoman Shannon Scully read a statement at last week’s School Committee meeting that attempted to clarify the situation.
Scully, reading from a prepared statement, said the allegations of a “hostile work environment” first surfaced in November 2019.
She said the superintendent and the human resources director met with the teachers who were “making complaints about other members of the AEA,” or the Andover Education Association, the union that represents more than 800 teachers in the district.
“It had nothing to do with the principal,” she said.
The district then hired Wendy Chu, a labor lawyer, to conduct an investigation, which has been made available to the public, although it is heavily redacted.
Chu interviewed staff in December, Scully said, during which the AEA twice challenged the validity of the investigation and were twice rejected in efforts to shut it down.
On Feb. 8, Scully said, the findings of Chu’s investigation were revealed and they showed the “behavior by some staff ... was incredibly disturbing. ... The report outlines evidence of staff being disparaging of colleagues.”
According to Chu’s report, which was made available to the Townsman, a group of teachers were involved in “workplace bullying and harassment” including: “name calling and unwelcome nicknames directed at staff, disparaging or derogatory statements about staff, disparaging statements about students and/or their family members, coercion and intimidation pressure tactics, and, retaliation against staff members who complained of harassment and/or participated in the investigation.”
Bach said Chu’s investigation was “not independent,” but was actually a report meant to “fit the district’s needs at that time.”
The intention of the teachers who went to speak to Berman and the human resources officer, Bach said, “was to bring the problems to the superintendent because they had been ignored for years. There had been multiple complaints to HR over the years.”
He said that rather than blame a principal for the problems in the school, the district instead chose to go after a handful of teachers.
He pointed to a “mood survey” conducted in 2019 that questioned 95% of the staff about the culture of the South School. An overwhelming number, Bach said, complained about the principal.
Bach said some of the teachers in the school decided to bring their concerns to the union, which also irked administrators.
“This was a reaction to the climate survey the teachers had generated,” Bach said. “They (administrators) were concerned about that information coming out, and the organizing happening in the building, so their response was to generate the sideshow.”
At last week’s School Committee meeting, Berman said the school is ready to move on,
“Our intent is to move forward with a fresh start, address the concerns raised and be positive about the direction the school will take,” he said. “We are going to be in a good place for next year.”