Records detail tensions at school

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photoA group of teachers led, from left, by union representatives Renee Theodorou and Lydia Wise, along with Massachusetts Teachers Association organizer Kevin Tierney, emerge from South Elementary School in Andover on Dec. 18 after classes were over to join demonstrators who turned out to show their support for the teachers.

ANDOVER — Superintendent Sheldon Berman is confident that serious concerns at South Elementary School will be resolved — possibly by the end of January, he said.

Until a Dec. 31, 2019 court ruling, few details were made public about looming tensions between Andover school administrators and members of the teachers’ union. A judge became involved when the union — the Andover Education Association — requested a restraining order against administrators who were systematically interviewing teachers about issues.

The union accuses administrators of "threatening union members" as they organized "for a better work environment at South Elementary," according to a statement from the union.

Administrators say, in a statement of their own, that “Our goal is to provide the employees at South Elementary working conditions in which they can focus on educating our students.”

The statement elaborates, “It is our responsibility to provide a healthy work environment for every APS employee, and we will continue to do so, including completion of the investigation.”

Berman said the investigation started Nov. 25 when he received an anonymous written complaint via inter-office mail.

The letter said faculty in the school engaged in “ridicule, mockery, and derogatory statements regarding students, staff, administrators and parents” and that “coercion and intimidation” were used to “divide staff and create a climate of fear and reprisal that permeates the building,” court documents state.

The same day Berman received the anonymous letter, he said three employees requested to meet with him.

Berman said that when he met with them, along with school district Human Resources Director Candance Hall, the employees expressed concerns that both repeated and expanded upon the concerns expressed in the anonymous letter.

“The real issue here is that we got a complaint about a hostile work environment. The union should have been working alongside us to resolve that,” Berman said. “We are going to address it as best we can and restore a healthy work environment. That’s our absolute obligation.”

The decision from an Essex County Superior Court judge denied the union its request for a temporary restraining order that would have halted an investigation by administrators. 

The judge decided that “curtailing the School District's ability to investigate the nature and scope of the problem(s) at South Elementary … would force the School District to allow apparently serious workplace difficulties at an elementary school to fester unaddressed during the pendency of the injunction.”

Berman said the investigation has been aided by Attorney Wendy Chu, who works for the law firm that represents the school district in labor matters. He hopes to complete the investigation by the end of January, he said.

“But we are taking this very seriously and will, of course, give it the attention it needs,” he said.

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