BRATTLEBORO—The five-member Brattleboro Town School District Board returned from their closed executive session to an empty room that had teemed with some 40 audience members only an hour earlier.
Four members of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union administration waited outside the Academy School auditorium, ground zero for a tense five-hour grievance hearing on Oct. 16 for a teacher who says that she wants to shine a light on an alleged pattern of bullying and intimidation in the school’s teaching environment and who is alleging that her treatment is part of an orchestrated effort to drive her from her job.
Chair Margaret Atkinson said the board will issue its written decision on teacher Lauren Ashley’s formal complaint by Oct. 24, within six school days.
Ashley, a fourth-grade teacher at Academy School with 27 years teaching experience, filed a formal grievance requesting the removal of a corrective action plan (CAP) from her official personnel file based on a teaching evaluation conducted during the 2012-13 school year.
She was represented at the hearing by attorney Robert Appel of Kohn Rath Danon & Appel, LLP of Hinesburg, the former executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission and a former Defender General of the state of Vermont.
Ashley is basing her formal grievance against the evaluation of her teaching and CAP, both conducted by Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli, saying the principal did not provide proper notice or follow the timeline required by the union contract.
The formal grievance, called a step three grievance under the teachers’ Vermont-National Education Association union contract, ascended the chain of command to the board after previous denials first by her supervisor, Paciulli, and the second by WSESU superintendent Ron Stahley.
During a step three grievance, the school board acts as a quasi-judicial body.
During the hearing, governed by procedures in her union contract, Ashley attempted to highlight allegations of workplace bullying.
Although such workplace grievance issues are normally hashed out behind closed doors in executive session, Ashley asked that her hearing occur in open public meeting. She hoped that holding an open meeting would allow members of the public speak to the bullying issue.
“I’m being shipped downstream so fast,” Ashley said to the board.
Fear of retaliation?
Experienced teachers are evaluated every three years. In addition to the in-classroom observation, the evaluation consists of a pre-evaluation discussion with the school principal about the planned lesson and objectives and a post-evaluation conference to discuss the in-classroom observation.
If the principal feels the teacher has areas of improvement, he or she can develop a corrective action plan and order additional observation.
Paciulli told the School Board that he saw room for improvement in Ashley’s teaching, citing organization, classroom management, and building an inclusive learning environment.
He told the board he suggested Ashley access a book and classes, The Skillful Teacher. He said he also offered to sit with Ashley and provide suggestions for improvement.
Ashley has been on medical leave since April. Her return to teaching is slated for Oct. 22, and the district also required that she undergo a psychological evaluation before returning to work. Ashley said she was found mentally sound.
In a statement written by Ashley, obtained by The Commons, Ashley wrote that she wanted the board to consider the corrective action plan designed by Paciulli “null and void as the administration did not abide” by the procedure in the union contract.
Ashley read only a portion of her written statement before Atkinson asked her to stop because she was bringing up issues outside the boundaries of the formal grievance.
“Until recently, I have believed the relationship between the administration and teaching staff to be one of mutual support and partnership,” read Ashley from her statement. “Over the last seven years [the approximate length of time that Paciulli has worked as principal], I have lost trust in that belief.”
Ashley had included in her written statement examples of being “singled out by my supervisor and written up” for supplementing the district’s math program with additional teaching materials.
Paciulli, contends Ashley, put her “under observation, and asked to submit my homework plans to the principal for review every day for three months with no follow up to ascertain whether there was still a problem.”
“I have seen the teaching climate in this district become one of fear, where many teachers are afraid to speak out or offer a difference of opinion for fear of retaliation,” Ashley concluded.
Piles of paper
The hearing started with the WSESU administration presenting its case. The board and Appel then questioned the administration.
Stahley walked from one end of the long tables where the administration, board, and Ashley sat. Before each of the 12 participants Stahley placed packets of information. Approximately 10 packets chronicling Ashley’s evaluation and two previous grievances piled up before the board members and other participants.
“This is like death by paperwork,” whispered a woman in the audience.
Appel and Ashley presented their grievance with the administration’s evaluation and CAP.
At the core of Appel and Ashley’s formal argument was that the administration neglected to follow the timeline required by the union contract.
As part of her argument that bullying had taken place, Ashley provided the board with a packet of information which she said contained a log of 115 emails that she and Paciulli exchanged over three months concerning her grievance.
According to Ashley, the union contract prohibits grievances being initiated or discussed with a teacher during the school day.
“These emails were filled with unjustified allegations and invalid criticism,” wrote Ashley in her statement.
The board then questioned Ashley. The administration did not ask any questions, feeling it made its case.
Public comment and public engagement
Board members remarked that the public rarely attended town School Committee meetings, yet the public decided to pack the auditorium for the grievance hearing.
Atkinson assured the audience that the board wanted more engagement with the public. She urged people to attend meetings regularly and join the board for a planning session and forum on Oct. 22.
The chair lamented the low public attendance at board meetings. Despite each board member publicly publishing their contact information, they rarely receive calls.
The community does not engage weekly with the board and it should, she said.
“So speak up,” Atkinson said. “We’re open to all those things.”
Despite the encouragement for the public to participate, the school board prohibited public participation, deciding that its quasi-judicial role for the hearing would not allow for community comment.
Part of the board’s reasoning, on advice of the school district’s attorney, Layla Taylor of Sullivan Hayes and Quinn, LLC of Springfield, Mass., was that Ashley had the right to appeal the board’s decision to an arbitrator.
No additional complaints could come before the board during the hearing, said Atkinson, noting that any complaints outside the scope of the hearing needed to follow proper channels.
“I urge the board not to shut the public out,” said Appel. “My sense is people here would like to speak.”
Ashley had sent an email prior to the hearing inviting people to attend and speak during the public comment portion.
After a brief executive session to discuss their decision, the board returned to the meeting room and announced that it remained firm that neither public comment or comments outside the scope of the grievance would be heard that night — the same reason Atkinson stopped Ashley part of the way through her prepared statement.
“People are here with a variety of concerns for our schools and our school’s future,” said Atkinson. “And we share those concerns.”
But, Atkinson said, “We are going to decline public comment tonight. Not at this time and not at this place.”
Ashley argued that she had expected to read her statement during the now-non-existent public comment period. She felt it important that the board understand what led her filing a grievance. But Ashley agreed to stop reading if Atkinson said to stop.
“I’m telling you to stop,” answered the chair.
An atmosphere of tension snaked the edges of the room as the hearing opened. As the night continued, the tension rose. Taut conversations stretched among the board, administration, and Ashley.
Ashley’s eyes watered, and her voice cracked.
Audience members shifted in their seats and mumbled to their neighbors, sometimes expressing frustration and sometimes expressing distress.
A woman, who later identified herself as a former teacher, hid her face with her hand as she hunched her shoulders and spine.
The hearing raised other themes echoed in letters to the editors that have been published in local media since early summer.
The first theme raised was the issue of workplace bullying and teachers feeling disrespected or harassed by the administration.
“I have tried for seven years to engage in professional conversations with my supervisors; however, I find that I have been portrayed as a distressed, disgruntled, and disagreeable employee,” wrote Ashley in the portion of her statement not read aloud.
“For the last seven years, I believe I have been the target of workplace bullying and harassment,” she continued in her statement.
Citing the costs that can be saved from hiring less-experienced, entry-level teachers in an allegation of age discrimination, Ashley also wrote, “Where is the evidence of efforts to improve my teaching performance on behalf of our students as opposed to push me out the door?”
Ashley’s concerns about workplace environment have been echoed in a letter to the editor published in the Brattleboro Reformer in June, where former teacher Anne Fines wrote, “Because of the federal pressure of testing and the threat of becoming a ‘failing’ school, diversity of opinion is becoming devalued and discouraged.”
“Teachers are becoming afraid to speak up, both because of harassment on the job and because of the fear of losing their jobs,” Fines continued. “When critical thinking and creativity are inhibited it takes a toll on the school experience for children.”
The second theme raised was that flaws existed in the formal grievance process.
Atkinson and Taylor pointed out that the board was following the procedure outlined in the union contract.
“It’s the process we must use,” Atkinson said. “It’s the process we have.”
Ashley pointed out during the meeting that no process existed that could bypass the administration or access an independent third party.
“One administrator can destroy the career of one teacher. The superintendent has always supported the administrator. That is the reality of our current system,” Ashley had written.