Several hundred protesters, including many parents, gathered in Monument Square last week to rally around Concord teachers who contend their voice has been bullied into silence by the school administration.
The catalyst for Tuesday’s protest was the decision April 30 by Thoreau Elementary School principal Kelly Clough not to renew the contract of Merrie Najimy, a veteran third-grade teacher and president of the teachers union.
“The evaluation system that exists has been misused and abused,” said Barbara Lehn, a Concord teacher who has known Najimy since she was hired 18 years ago. “It’s not because of her teaching, but because she is president of the Concord Teachers Association. . . . Merrie has been an exemplary teacher.”
Pamela Gannon, who was elected chairman of the School Committee on Tuesday, said it ultimately will be up to Superintendent Diana Rigby to decide whether any teacher’s contract is renewed.
“The School Committee is not involved in staffing,” she said in an interview. “The only hiring we do is the superintendent, and that’s Commonwealth law.”
“We’re definitely listening,” Gannon added. “We understand that it’s a very upsetting situation to many parents.
Rigby disagreed with the notion that a teacher would be targeted because of involvement with the union.
“We have had over the years, many teacher union leaders who have been vocal and quite public critics of policies and decisions with which they have disagreed,” Rigby said in an e-mail to the Globe. “We have never let those disagreements affect any evaluation of their teaching performance.”
The action against Najimy is the latest blow to the relationship between Concord teachers, who have found strong backing among some parents, and the school administration.
On May 8, the Concord Teachers Association filed a complaint through the Massachusetts Division of Labor Relations against Concord Public Schools. Among other allegations, it states that Clough placed Najimy on an “unwarranted performance action plan” after issuing “unsupported” negative evaluations against the teacher.
Efforts to reach Clough for comment were unsuccessful. However, Rigby said in an e-mail that the evaluations are performed in accordance with the union contract and Massachusetts law, and that every teacher has the chance to disagree and rebut the evaluations.
“I would certainly take quite seriously any claim that a teacher’s evaluation was being used for improper purposes, and would not allow that to occur,” Rigby said. “Our school principals are highly dedicated professionals whose ultimate goal is doing what they believe is in the best interests of our students.”
Meanwhile, relations between the district and the community have continued to deteriorate.
On April 22, Town Meeting rejected a warrant article, brought forth by citizens petition, urging Concord’s two school boards to “make new changes in the central administration of the school department to ensure a good faith effort toward greater transparency and fiscal responsibility.”
At Tuesday’s protest, Thoreau third-grade teacher Brad Bennette announced that he was resigning after 17 years of teaching “in large part because of the corroded climate” of the district. Teachers, he said, have become targets of the district’s “union-busting” strategy.
Teachers and parents have repeatedly referred to the 2012 Teaching, Empowering, Leading & Learning Mass survey, also known as TELL Mass, commissioned by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. According to the survey, only 10 percent of Thoreau teachers agreed that there was an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the school; and only 18.5 percent said they thought that school leadership consistently supports teachers.
Gannon said staffing issues fall under Rigby’s purview, but that “obviously, we’ve heard concerns from teachers and parents. The district is taking steps to remedy this, and really hoping that we can move forward.”
Gannon said those remedies include committees established for each school to analyze the TELL Mass results and draft recommendations, as well as a consultant who was hired to study the climate at the Thoreau School.
Speaking to the Concord School Committee Tuesday after the rally, resident Cheryl Kirkpatrick told the school board that issues were not isolated to the Thoreau School and that the district needs to start measuring school climate every year.
Parent Kathryn Oh warned the administration and the School Committee that parents would stand by Najimy, should her contract not be renewed.
“As parents, we will stand by her to the very end,” Oh said. “We will hold all of you accountable, for all the pain and suffering [inflicted] upon the teacher and us, the community. Because we are suffering now.”
Paul Horwitz, a Concord resident and former School Committee member, said, “Something’s wrong with the process.”
“People elected to this committee need to seriously think about that. It’s not a question about whether we agree or disagree with your decisions,” Horwitz said. “It’s the atmosphere in which we communicate. That’s not the Concord way.”
According to Rigby, each school is analyzing TELL Mass data to identify areas of improvement. Rigby said she is also working with the teachers union on “reviewing strategies to implement to increase teacher leadership opportunities.”
Rigby said, “We’re asking the teachers, ‘What’s not working, why not, and what would you do differently?’ ”
Najimy said in an interview that there has been a change in the past few years as to how the administration relates to its teachers. Increasingly, she said, teacher expertise has been marginalized, and the superintendent’s leadership style has left many teachers out of the decision-making process.
“We want a relationship with the administration and the School Committee,” Najimy said. “We just want our expertise to be acknowledged.”