South School principal takes medical leave

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photoA group of teachers emerge from the South Elementary School in Andover after classes were over to join demonstrators who showed up for a rally.

Tracy Crowley, the principal at the center of a controversy over claims of a "hostile work environment" at South School, will be taking an extended medical leave, according to a message from the superintendent to parents.

"We wish her the best during this time," Superintendent Sheldon Berman said in an email this week. "Beginning on Jan. 21, Colleen McBride, the former South Elementary principal, has agreed to serve as the principal in the interim."

Berman went on to say that McBride is "very familiar" with the school and its curriculum, and he is "confident that she will be able to serve the students, faculty and South School community."

Crowley, who took over at South School in fall 2017, has been embroiled recently in a controversy over what Berman has called a "hostile work environment" at the school.

Berman and Crowley said the tensions involve teachers fighting with teachers, but the Andover Education Association, the teachers union, has said the principal created the stressful working conditions because she is opposed to any discussion of or attempts at union activities.

Union President Matthew Bach could not be reached for comment. Neither could Crowley nor School Committee Chairman Joel Blumstein. Berman said in a text message Monday that no additional information beyond his message to parents would be released.

As the debate over working conditions at the school picked up momentum, teachers marched out of the school after classes were over one day in mid-December and had a rally to draw attention to their cause.

McBride, who takes over later this month, had been principal at South School for three years before leaving.

The issue of a "hostile work environment" was investigated by school administrators, who said the problems occurred due to warring factions among teachers. The administrators, including Crowley and Berman, started an investigation that included interviewing teachers at the school.

But the teachers union countered that the problems were created by Crowley, who tried to quash any type of union activity at the school. The teachers union sought a court injunction against the administration to stop the investigation.

The injunction was denied by a judge late last month.

But in his ruling, the judge wrote: “There is certainly evidence of troubling actions by School District officials, including the principal at South Elementary.”

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