The Newton Teachers Association on Thursday cast a vote of no confidence in the city’s superintendent and called on him to resign over the handling of efforts to reopen schools this fall.
The public rebuke of Superintendent David Fleishman by the city’s educators comes amid an imbroglio brewing around Newton’s efforts to open its schools during the pandemic.
The School Committee has already voted twice on reopening plans this month, and scuttled a plan to offer both a hybrid model and distance learning program for all grades.
Instead, the committee decided Aug. 26 that Newton will start the year remotely for most high school and middle school students, while elementary school students are phased into in-person part-time classes beginning Sept. 16.
The teachers association has previously called for an all-remote start to the school year, with a procedure to start in-person classes when public health experts say it’s safe to do so.
“We made every effort to work collaboratively with the district to develop the best plans possible for a safe and sustainable reopening of schools,” Michael Zilles, the union’s president, said in a statement. “Instead, much of the summer was squandered as the NPS central administrators resisted including educator voices and expertise.”
Zilles said in his statement that Fleishman failed to ensure safe schools for students and educators, adequately plan for children’s education, or lead administrators in a collaborative process with teachers, parents, and the community. Union members cast votes Thursday during a virtual meeting, Zilles said.
In a phone interview, Fleishman said Newton’s plans are similar to its peer districts, and the district is trying to get students and staff back to school in a healthy and safe manner. Fleishman said he will not resign as superintendent, a job he has held since 2010.
“I’m disappointed, because obviously it’s not something I would ever want, and it’s not something I’ve ever experienced in my many years as a superintendent,” Fleishman said of the union vote. “I understand it’s a very stressful time, and it’s a time of a lot of emotion and strong feeling, and I’m [going to] listen, learn, and try to lower the temperature.”
The union vote against Fleishman came just days before teachers returned to work Monday. The School Committee is expected to vote Tuesday on his annual evaluation as superintendent of schools.
Both Ruth Goldman, the committee’s chairwoman, and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller supported Fleishman’s work to reopen schools.
In July, the committee approved a contract extension for Fleishman that runs through June 2024, Goldman said, and board members have spent months working on his latest evaluation. They expect to vote on that assessment during Tuesday’s meeting, she said.
“I think David Fleishman has done a very good job,” Goldman said.
Fleishman earns $303,678 as superintendent of Newton, which is among the top 10 largest districts in Massachusetts.
Fuller, in a statement, said Fleishman and the Newton Public Schools team have been “working assiduously” and have a wide range of health practices, facility modifications, academic changes, and social and emotional supports in place as the schools reopen.
“For example, as our elementary students return both in person and with distance learning in September, NPS has a strong, high quality and equitable teaching and learning model in place,” she said.
Newton’s school buildings have been closed since Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in the spring.
The reopening plans have splintered parents, educators, and school officials ahead of an unprecedented school year, as the district launches a complex effort to educate about 12,800 students and protect them from the coronavirus.
Some parents and students have protested at schools and at City Hall to resume classes in person, while other parents and teachers have spoken out with their concerns about returning to the school buildings due to the coronavirus.
“We did the best we could given the tremendous time pressure. But at the end of the day, I think people have different perspectives about trying to get kids back into buildings,” Fleishman said. “And I respect people who feel we should be remote.”
The union also voted Thursday to call on the school system to set up COVID-19 surveillance testing, implement a mask policy for building occupants, conduct an assessment of building ventilation systems, as well as allow teachers time to create health and safety teams before students return.
They also want teachers and students organized into small groups to facilitate contact tracing and prevent outbreaks, according to Zilles.
Zilles said the teachers association’s plan for a remote start included implementing a surveillance testing program for students and teachers.
He said the district has not shared specific steps it will follow in response to positive cases of COVID-19 in a school building, or how it will determine when it will close a classroom, school, or the entire system because of an outbreak.
Zilles, in a phone interview, said any reopening plans should be negotiated with the union.
“Everything got pushed back to the last minute, and very little of it got negotiated,” Zilles said. “The plan was to open the schools with far too many unanswered questions.”
Fleishman said the district has worked hard to prepare for the upcoming school year, and has released details on how it would handle a positive coronavirus case through the district’s website.
The district’s work also includes upgrades to school buildings and developing plans that allow elementary students to return to schools as part of a hybrid model. Fleishman said the city’s Health and Human Services Department is also continuing to look at surveillance testing for the schools.
He said he would continue to work with all stakeholders to the best of his ability.
“One of the reasons it’s such a challenging time is that a majority of parents and guardians in our district would like kids [back] in school in person, and a majority of educators have concerns about it,” Fleishman said. “Superintendents are right in the middle.”
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.