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Honeymoon over between school superintendent and teachers union

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of October 1, 2020)
Photo: School Superintendent David Moore.

School Superintendent David Moore’s honeymoon with the teachers union came to a harsh end last week as teachers union President Jennifer Freeland excoriated him for problems with the reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Teachers and support staff are shouldering the weight of this pandemic alone, uninformed, scared for their students, themselves, their families, and, yes, in some cases, their job,” Freeland said.

According to Freeland, tech issues plague the virtual schooling program for 2,000 students in the district’s “transitional” option, students are still returning to class from virtual schooling, teachers are overburdened by too many students, district staff have not been reassigned to help at schools as promised, and communication with teachers has been inadequate.

Just a month ago, Freeland told the School Board that Moore was doing a good job dealing with the pandemic and teachers’ concerns, saying, “The relationship has come a long way in just a few months ... things have become transparent so we can understand each other as we talk. In the process, our relationship got stronger and we have done more together.”

But in her impassioned speech to Moore and the School Board last Tuesday, Freeland six times used the word “lie” about assurances she said Moore made to the union.

“Teachers were told they would be kept safe and would be notified if a student in their class was being quarantined for symptoms, or a positive test. Lie,” Freeland said.

“This has not been done equitably nor consistently.”

Freeland continued her speech past the School Board’s three-minute limit for public speakers – saying, “I’m not stopping; have me removed” – but relented when a sheriff’s deputy confronted her at the podium.

Freeland’s comments were the first sign of discord between union leaders and Moore after they worked together to complete stalled negotiations for a contract for 2018 through 2020, agreed to several memorandums of understanding for reopening schools and promoted a school tax referendum.

Moore, who took over the school district shortly before the new year, said he was taken aback by Freeland’s comments and vowed to address the issues.

“Ms. Freeland, in complete transparency, my heart hurts for some of the things you’ve said,” Moore said. “I understand your position, I understand the role you play, but as I said: ‘I’m never going to break a promise.’”

“This is complex, hard work,” Moore said. “I will continue to work with you and your teachers in order to get it right. That’s not to dispute or take away from anything you’ve said. I know this is a struggle.

“I know there were big commitments made,” Moore said. “There are the variables we need to address, but the commitments will be fulfilled.”

School Board members Jacqueline Rosario and Mara Schiff said they plan to meet with Moore to discuss the union’s issues.

“I will sit down with Dr. Moore and we will go through each and every item,” Rosario told Freeland.

Schiff endorsed Freeland’s proposal for the district to survey teachers, particularly regarding student performance and the availability of computer technology.

The teachers union was not alone in complaining to Moore and the School Board on Sept. 22 about the district’s policies and procedures for reopening schools during the pandemic.

A group of about a dozen parents, some carrying signs saying, “No mask mandate,” called for Moore and the School Board to rescind a policy requiring students to wear facial coverings on campus when social distancing is not possible.

“Maybe the masks don’t work, maybe they do – we could debate this for five more hours,” said Jennifer Pippin, who has two children in district schools. “It should be the parents’ choice, the teachers’ choice, the students’ choice whether they wear masks or not.”

School Board member Teri Barenborg said the next parent survey should include questions about whether masks should be mandatory or optional.

Students are allowed to remove their face masks when outdoors and more than 6 feet away from others, Moore said.

“There are parents informing their children not to take off the mask, even though that is an option,” Moore said. “We are more flexible than most districts in terms of not mandating a mask at all times.”