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Malden teachers union votes no confidence in school superintendent

Students returned to in-person school in Malden last spring.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The union representing educators in Malden Public Schools overwhelmingly approved a vote of no confidence against Superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy over recent layoffs and what they describe as poor communication.

More than 99 percent of those with the Malden Education Association who were in attendance Wednesday night approved the no-confidence vote. The decision comes after months of building tensions between the schools chief and the union, which represents more than 700 teachers, assistant principals, and assistant teachers, and also as parents and students raise questions about her credentials.

The union complains that Noriega-Murphy didn’t communicate with them before announcing more than 60 layoffs last month and has often tried to make changes that ignored their contract during her first year on the job.

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“The superintendent’s communication has been lacking, opaque, and not honest,” said Malden Education Association president Deb Gesualdo.

Noriega-Murphy said in a short phone interview with the Globe Thursday that she’s not surprised by the union vote.

“Their focus is more on adults than on students,” she said. “But I’ve always been respectful to everybody.”

Malden Mayor Gary Christenson did not return e-mails requesting comment.

Noriega-Murphy took the superintendent job in Malden last summer, after working more than two decades in Boston where she was credited with both turning around a struggling high school but also blamed for hiring a dean who was later sentenced to prison for shooting one of his students.

The union says Noriega-Murphy tried to change the educator evaluation system, change job descriptions, and offer less stipend money without renegotiating the contract, among other moves. Union members filed seven class-action grievances, in addition to 11 individual complaints this year. Last academic year, members filed five total grievances against the district.

When the district announced 63 contract nonrenewals for next year, Gesualdo said the district gave the union little notice and didn’t correctly represent the reasons for letting some teachers go.

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In a presentation for parents last month, Noriega-Murphy said the district was not renewing contracts for 18 educators based on performance. But the union disputes the reason, with Gesualdo saying some of those educators were deemed “proficient” on evaluations.

“This is a really great example of dishonest communication,” Gesualdo said.

School committee member Adam Weldai agreed that the district has done a “very poor job” communicating with the public and educators this year, and the superintendent had made “many missteps” during her first year. There was a particular communication barrier between the superintendent and the union, Weldai said.

“I’m sad for our community,” he said. “The clear breakdown of communication between professionals shouldn’t be imposed on the community.”

The teacher layoffs have gotten the attention of some students and parents who have started asking questions about inconsistencies in the way Noriega-Murphy has represented her education.

Noriega-Murphy is commonly referred to with the prefix Dr., including in district communications and official website. However, the resume she submitted when she applied for the Malden position in 2021 doesn’t list a doctorate.

“This is about academic integrity,” said Bruce Friedman, father of two students in the district, who has filed public records requests with the state, UMASS Boston, and other institutions to better understand Noriega-Murphy’s academic history.

Noriega-Murphy said in an interview she has a doctorate in urban education from the University of Salamanca in Spain. She said she didn’t include the degree on her resume because it wasn’t required for the superintendent position and because of “a legal thing with my spouse prevented me from listing it.” She did not elaborate on that reason.

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According to Weldai, Noriega-Murphy disclosed she had a doctorate to school committee members once she was chosen for the job.

“I haven’t given much thought about that since she has her superintendent’s certification,” Weldai said.

Before working in Malden, Noriega-Murphy served as an assistant superintendent in Boston Public Schools. During that time, she spent five years at Boston English High School, becoming the first woman to head the school. During her tenure, she added more support for students and afterschool programs so students would want to attend school and used data to track their progress. Scores on the state-mandated Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, at the struggling school improved, especially in math.

While she was in charge of English High, she hired Shaun Harrison to serve as a dean of students. Harrison appears to have been living a double life, as a reverend who preached nonviolence while helping students but also as a criminal. He was convicted of armed assault with intent to kill after shooting a 17-year-old English High student who was allegedly supposed to sell marijuana for him in the school cafeteria.

According to the resume Noriega-Murphy submitted for the Malden superintendent position, she completed two master’s degrees at Cambridge College. The same resume indicates she spent eight years in Spain starting in 2000 working as an adjunct summer professor at the University of Salamanca.

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Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.