By Dustin Luca
---- — The Andover Education Association says a school district decision to fire high school teacher Jen Meagher for an email she sent to fellow teachers last June was illegal, and a grievance filed with the state’s Department of Labor Relations seeks to restore her with back pay and benefits.
Meagher and AEA President Kerry Costello testified before a DLR hearing Tuesday at the department’s Boston headquarters. At the hearing, they answered questions about the high school’s reaccreditation process and how bargaining for the latest contract was tied directly to reaccreditation self-study reports.
In the final month of contract bargaining last June, Meagher sent an email to 60 high school staff saying the reaccreditation process “is the only leverage we have left at the bargaining table. We can assure the (School Committee) and (Superintendent Marinel McGrath) that reports will be passed and (reaccreditation) will continue if there is a contract signed this summer that maintains a five-class load at AHS.”
Up to that point, the only remaining “sticking point” in contract talks was teacher workload at the high school. The School Committee proposed increasing the workload from five to six courses, allowing the district to eliminate teaching positions and save money while also putting a dent in climbing class sizes.
Ultimately, the final, ratified contract incorporated a six-course-per-year teaching model. Though Meagher asked the teachers receiving her email to abstain in their votes on the self-study reports, all seven reports were passed by the last day of school, June 21.
Meagher was fired by the district on Sept. 17, according to a notice of dismissal from McGrath. In the dismissal, McGrath said Meagher’s email urged teachers to refrain from performing an in-service duty required of them by the contract — exercising their judgment as to the merits of the reaccreditation reports.
The union filed a grievance charging that the termination was illegal on the grounds that Meagher’s decision to send the email was “concerted protected union activity.”
At the hearing Tuesday, union legal representative Laurie Houle said Meagher “was the face of the union’s action activities” and “this termination was under the pretentious guise that Ms. Meagher encouraged a strike.”
Houle argued that there was a direct link between the reaccreditation process, specifically the self-study reports, and the collective bargaining session because the reports were based on high school teachers leading five courses a year, while teachers faced the possibility of teaching a sixth course by the end of the year.
A second hearing day was scheduled for yesterday, Wednesday, after The Townsman’s deadline.
In his opening comments at the hearing, School Department attorney John Foskett said Meagher’s dismissal was “focused purely on the content of this email” and that the email’s “purpose, the sole purpose, was to obtain leverage at the bargaining table.”
In an Oct. 31 response to the AEA grievance charge, the School Committee wrote that the email “urged the faculty to withhold the exercise of their judgment and discretion regarding the reports and the process and to instead simply vote to abstain for reasons having nothing to do with the accreditation process.”
No witnesses were called by the School Department at Tuesday’s hearing, and the department’s involvement in the hearing was only through cross-examination. The AEA called Meagher, union President Kerry Costello and high school English teacher Greg Waters to testify as witnesses.
In her testimony, Meagher said she opposed the passing of the reports because “in my opinion, the validity of the reports was completely undermined. They had decided we were teaching six courses when all the research (for the reports), all the evidence we gathered, wasn’t going to be related to the school we were going to be over the next 10 years.”
Costello, in her testimony, said “there was no withholding of service” sparked by Meagher’s email because teachers “could vote to abstain, but they voted.”
“I felt this was protected union activity,” she said.
Meagher received a letter from McGrath not long after her email was sent out stating that the superintendent intended to terminate her. The official notice came two months later, after the 2012-2013 school year had already started.
Meagher at one point broke into tears while trying to describe her last day at the school, forcing the hearing to recess for around five minutes.
Once she returned, she said she was “stunned” by McGrath’s termination notice, and not just because it ended her relationship with the district. It also said she exhibited “conduct unbecoming of a teacher,” which she took direct issue with at the hearing.
“People who are fired for conduct unbecoming of a teacher do things like have sexual relationships with students or hit students,” she said. “They do horrible things to kids. I was being given that label officially. That was now a part of my professional record.”