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Marlborough school superintendent faces criticism

Marlborough’s superintendent of schools, Anthony Pope, is coming under heavy criticism as a succession of controversies buffets his administration.

Students have expressed outrage that Pope recently fired Adam Bakr from his position as Marlborough High’s assistant principal, four months after the superintendent put Bakr on administrative leave without a public explanation. A high school guidance counselor has accused the superintendent of shoving her during a student sit-in protesting Bakr’s absence. And the city’s teachers union has written a letter to Pope telling him he’s rude and intimidating.

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In an e-mail, Pope defended his leadership but didn’t directly address the allegation that he had pushed the guidance counselor, or the specific criticisms by students or the teachers union.

“I pride myself on treating all students, families, and staff with the utmost respect and professionalism,” wrote Pope. “Every personnel decision that school administrators and I have made has been in the best interest of students. The safety and academic success of the children in our schools remain our top priority.’’

Mayor Arthur Vigeant, who is also chairman of the city’s School Committee, said he and other officials were investigating the complaints, which he acknowledged had created a tense atmosphere at the high school. He is expected to make a statement on the situation at the School Committee’s meeting Tuesday.

“We’re looking into it, trying to sort out the facts from the fictions,” said Vigeant. “After next week, we might have a position. But right now it’s pretty muddy.”

Pope has been superintedent since May 2010.

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The controversies began in mid-December when Pope put Bakr on administrative leave, allowing Bakr to still receive his salary but prohibiting him from reporting to work. Citing personnel rules, the superintendent maintained that he couldn’t divulge why Bakr was absent.

The lack of an explanation prompted students to stage sit-ins in the high school halls, and flood School Committee meetings to demand answers about Bakr’s status.

Then, on April 11, Bakr was officially fired, said Vigeant, who added that personnel rules also kept him from explaining the reason for the termination.

Students who organized online petitions in support of Bakr have now launched an online petition calling on Vigeant to fire Pope. One of the students, Cairo Mendes, said he and his peers are furious and confused about how the assistant principal could be let go abruptly and seemingly arbitrarily.

“Now that Bakr is fired, the atmosphere at school is worse,” said Mendes. “The students are upset.”

Bakr could not be reached for comment.

On a Facebook page Mendes established in support of Bakr, the assistant principal on April 13 posted a message thanking the students.

“I am humbled by your kind words and selfless actions,” he wrote. “Your courage and your tireless efforts will never be forgotten. I will forever bleed black and orange.

“Now, go do your homework — and remember to always give the world . . . your very best! Go Panthers!!!”

Bakr’s lawyer, Colin Confoey, would not say why school administrators say they had fired his client.

However, he said Bakr is planning to fight Pope’s decision.

“He hadn’t done anything wrong,” said Confoey. “He’s got a stellar record at the high school. He’s never been disciplined, and he’s got the full support of his colleagues, the teachers, the students, and the parents.”

Confoey said he’s filed papers with Pope seeking an independent arbitrator to determine whether the firing was legitimate, a move open to Bakr under his union contract.

Marlborough officials are in the process of appointing a new principal for the high school, according to Confoey, who said he believes Pope removed Bakr because he wanted to eliminate a popular administrator who would be a likely candidate for the top job.

Confoey also noted that Bakr was also the president of the Marlborough Administrators Association, a group of 15 middle managers in the city’s schools. Pope might have been looking to remove Bakr because he was an able union leader who might have opposed the superintendent’s policies, he said.

“In his mind, the association represented a potential check on his authority,” Confoey said of the superintendent.

Pope denied Confoey’s contentions.

“I cannot comment on human resource issues,” the superintendent wrote in a statement. “I can say that the assertions by attorney Colin Confoey are completely false.’’

The arbitration process or an appeal to the state’s labor agency could take as long as a year to resolve the dispute, said Confoey. But before then, Pope might have to answer other charges in Marlborough District Court.

High school guidance counselor Joanne Hanson approached Marlborough police in February about the alleged shoving incident, but the department said too much time had elapsed to warrant an investigation, according to her lawyer, Mike Donahue.

Hanson has filed an application with the District Court asking a magistrate to determine whether she can file criminal charges against Pope, said Donahue, with a hearing on her request scheduled for May 17.

Hanson waited a month to approach the police because she feared Pope would retaliate against her, said Donahue. “She was afraid,” he said. “This is big stuff, to file a criminal complaint against her boss.”

The Marlborough Educators Association echoed Hanson’s sentiments in an April 4 letter to Pope that association president Brendan St. George, a Marlborough High School English teacher, said could be a precursor to a no-confidence vote unless the superintendent is open to changing his leadership style.

“We recently polled our membership regarding their perceptions concerning the direction the district is taking to foster excellence in our schools,” the letter said. “The response was chilling. In brief, teachers expressed feelings of distrust and intimidation, and are absolutely fearful of retaliation by you.”

The union’s letter wasn’t directly connected to Pope’s decision to fire Bakr, said St. George. It lists worries raised by teachers throughout the school system about staffing in special education classes and other programs, for example.

But the letter also suggested that Pope’s relations with teachers had deteriorated significantly in the months since Bakr was put on leave.

“Teachers reported interactions with you being abrupt and your manner rude and unreceptive,” the letter stated. “Your actions have caused a chilling school climate that has been exacerbated by your tone and decision not to communicate with the rank and file, and your directives that you are not to be contacted directly by teachers.”

A prolonged fight over whether Pope pushed Hanson or whether Bakr was legally fired won’t improve matters, St. George added.

“ “The situation is tense,’’ he said. “People are on edge.”

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