By Dustin Luca
---- — Decisions, decisions.
A week after a state labor board ordered the Andover School Committee to reinstate a fired high school teacher, it remains unclear whether the town will appeal the ruling or if the teacher will take her old job back.
On July 2, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board ruled that the School Committee discriminated against Andover High English teacher and union activist Jen Meagher for sending out an email encouraging her colleagues to abstain from voting on high school re-accreditation reports because they were “the only leverage we have left at the bargaining table.”
The district terminated her for sending the email, and the union filed a grievance against the firing last October on the grounds that sending the email was protected union activity.
The state labor board agreed.
Its decision came after a two-day hearing before the board last month, which said in its decision that the School Committee “discriminated against Meagher based on her union activity in violation of (state law).” The decision was filed as part of a 53-page ruling.
“I’m pleased and I think it’s the right decision,” Meagher said in an interview this week, adding that she is still mulling whether to take her old job back.
“I would like to take it,” she said. “I’m kind of weighing the options and seeing what else is possible.”
Since she was let go last fall, Meagher has held several substitute and part-time teaching positions in the region.
The School Committee, meanwhile, also has a decision to make.
The decision can be challenged before the state Appeals Court. An appeal must be filed within 30 days, according to School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue. No decision on an appeal, or even discussion of one, has taken place as of this week.
“The School Committee is reviewing the decision and will assess all of the options and avenues for appellate review for the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board decision,” Forgue said.
He said the committee opposes the decision because it “failed to acknowledge that a teacher shouldn’t be permitted to place the re-accreditation process at risk to create pressure for collective bargaining demands.”
Any discussion of appeal would take place behind closed doors in executive session, Forgue said. No such meeting was scheduled as of Monday afternoon.
Andover schools Superintendent Marinel McGrath refused to comment, saying that Forgue “is the spokesperson for the schools regarding this matter.”
Kerry Costello, president of the Andover Education Association, said she was happy with the outcome because the union “stood up for the rights of our members to engage in protected union activities. We prevailed.”
She added, “A person’s right to engage in protected union activity is sacrosanct for the union, and we stood behind a union member we felt was unjustly terminated for that activity.”
The ruling orders the School Committee to offer Meagher her job back and issue back pay and benefits she lost since getting fired last September.
Highlights of decision
In explaining its decision to order Meagher be rehired, the state board addressed what it characterized as “the administration’s silence on the issue.”
As the high school geared up for a re-accreditation visit from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges last fall, school administrators and faculty were tasked with voting on seven self-study reports, an essential part of the process, prior to the end of the school year.
Many faculty were concerned about what was in the reports because of how contract issues could change them, the decision says. One report’s executive summary, quoted in the decision, said that the pending contract made it so “the future of the Andover High School schedule is unknown.” Because of that, “any alteration to the schedule and/or teaching conditions may impact our ability to achieve our stated learning expectations.”
As faculty started voting against the reports due to the ongoing contract issue, voting was moved to a ballot process, according to the decision. Then-interim Andover High Principal Tom Sharkey approved a third “abstention” option for the ballot — basically allowing teachers to vote against the reports in a way that didn’t bring the content of the reports into question.
No administrator — including Superintendent McGrath — told teachers from that point forward that voting abstention was an illegal withholding of services, according to the decision.
Meagher’s email told those receiving it to use the option, because “we can assure the (School Committee) and (McGrath) that reports will be passed and NEASC will continue if there is a contract signed this summer that maintains a five-class load at AHS.”
“By approving the option on the ballot, they were validating that option as a vote,” Meagher said this week. “We had been using it. People had been voting to abstain. Nobody had been disciplined for it.”
“Nobody ever said to us, ‘you can’t do this,’” Meagher said.
On June 26, five days after all of the reports passed, Meagher received a letter from McGrath saying that abstaining and voting to “put a hold on” the reports was a violation of state law, which prohibits conduct that “induces, encourages or condones a strike, work stoppage, slowdown or a withholding of services,” the decision reads.
Meagher was put on paid administrative leave, and after an internal hearing, a follow-up letter on Sept. 14 finalized Meagher’s termination, according to the decision.
CERB’s decision supporting Meagher also supported the use of the abstention vote. “The abstain option on the paper ballots, as approved by Sharkey, de facto enabled faculty to ‘put a hold on’ the NEASC process, while still fully participating in the NEASC process,” the decision said.
“The administration’s silence on the issue,” where no warning against abstention votes was given to teachers after Meagher’s email was distributed, also factored into the employment relations board’s decision to support restoring Meagher at AHS.
Addressing the “administration’s silence on the issue,” the board also wrote that it “has consistently held that when an employer fails to establish, communicate and/or enforce rules governing the duties employees are obligated to perform, employees or union who withhold or urge or condone the withholding of those services have not engaged in an illegal work stoppage.”
HOW WE GOT HERE: Timeline of events
:DECEMBER 2001: Meagher hired to teach English at Andover High
AUGUST 2010: Teachers contract expires, setting off bargaining for successor contract
JANUARY 2012: Teachers launch work-to-rule action
MARCH 2012: Tentative agreement reached; work-to-rule ends. Deal later falls apart.
JUNE 10, 2012: Meagher loses election in bid for union president. Three days later, she sends email calling for abstention votes on June 21.
JUNE 21, 2012: Self-study documents pass without issue.
JUNE 26, 2012: Teachers ratify new contract. On the same day, McGrath writes letter announcing intent to fire Meagher, placing her on paid leave and scheduling a hearing.
SEPT. 7, 2012: Schools hold hearing into Meagher’s termination.
SEPT. 14, 2012: McGrath finalizes decision to terminate Meagher effective Sept. 17.
OCT. 5, 2012: Andover Education Association files grievance charge against School Committee.
JUNE 4-5, 2013: Commonwealth Employment Relations Board holds hearing to investigate grievance charge
JULY 2, 2013: Employment Relations Board rules in favor of Meagher, orders reinstatement