By Dustin Luca
---- — The School Committee has cleared the way for fired Andover High School English teacher Jen Meagher to return to the classroom, saying any appeals to a state labor board decision ordering her reinstatement wouldn’t be in the best interest of students.
Despite being “deeply disappointed” with last month’s Commonwealth Employment Relations Board ruling that determined Meagher engaged in protected union activity and that her termination amounted to discrimination, the committee voted unanimously last Friday against pursuing an appeal.
Meagher was fired last September by Superintendent Marinel McGrath for sending an email in spring 2012 encouraging fellow faculty members to abstain from voting on high school reaccreditation reports in an effort to gain leverage in protracted and contentious contract talks.
School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue and former Chairwoman Paula Colby-Clements said this week they were surprised by the Employment Relations Board’s decision that essentially said a “teacher can collude to sink a reaccreditation.”
“We feel a teacher shouldn’t be allowed to do what she did,” Colby-Clements said. “The fact that CERB has now decided that activity is protected was something we couldn’t have predicted or imagined.”
But Colby-Clements said just as people may not agree with the Supreme Court’s decision to allow pickets at a serviceman’s funeral, the same holds for school officials. They are bound by the decision.
“We don’t have to like it personally,” she said.
Forgue said while the School Committee maintains that the labor board’s decision is flawed, it also recognizes the inability to press forward given that the state appeals court would essentially back the labor board.
“We need to look at the larger picture,” he said.
The state board’s ruling orders the school district to reinstate Meagher and provide her back pay with interest and benefits lost during her termination.
That figure was still being calculated this week. Meagher was earning an annual salary of $85,521 when she was fired, according to the town’s Human Resources Department.
A decision to appeal would not have stayed Meagher’s reinstatement, Forgue and Colby-Clements said. Meagher would have been entitled to receive her back pay and return to the classroom during what would have likely been a year-long appeal process, a scenario that Forgue said would have created “significant challenges” in the school environment.
Meagher, meanwhile, has not said whether she intends to return to Andover High now that she has won her job back.
Last week, she, too, said her actions during the contract negotiations last year were based on “what I thought was best for the kids.”
“(The union’s) intention was to protect quality education,” Meagher said. “That’s something I think Andover can take a great deal of pride in.”
Meagher said the employment relations board’s decision clearly found that she “used the process as had been provided by the administration.” But she acknowledged mistakes had been made on both sides.
“I certainly regret everything happened the way it happened ... for all the contention and conflict within the Andover learning community,” she said.
“I think everyone involved in this probably has personal regrets. I think if you don’t have personal regrets, you lack self-reflection. We all did the best we could in a difficult situation and everyone made mistakes. We had never been through it before.”
The case revolved around an email Meagher sent privately to 60 faculty members via personal email addresses. The email encouraged them to use the abstain option on reports necessary to move the high school’s reaccreditation process forward until the School Committee and teachers’ union reached a contact settlement.
Meagher was later terminated for encouraging teachers to refrain from carrying out required duties, the legality of which became the heart of the Andover Education Association’s challenge to the state board last October.
The labor board ultimately determined that abstaining in the voting process was allowed because school administrators didn’t make it abundantly clear that it was against the law. Because Meagher’s termination was based on that abstention option, her firing was deemed unlawful.
Forgue and Colby-Clements said what happens next rests with Meagher. As far as they are concerned, she’s returning to Andover High for the coming school year unless she indicates otherwise.
— Staff writer Sonya Vartabedian contributed to this report.