Hillside teachers continue to clash with school board

HILLSIDE — Teachers, their union leaders and parents continued to clash with school board members about staff reassignments and poor communication, reiterating claims during a contentious meeting on Thursday, July 19, that the district administration has retaliated against union officials following yearlong contract negotiations.

During a round of testimonials from educators in the audience, New Jersey Education Association Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty addressed the school board and lambasted its decision to transfer Hillside Education Association President Angela Lawler from her high school secretarial position to one at an elementary school.

“It’s shameful that a dedicated employee of 18 years was transferred, for punitive measures as it appears. No other secretary was transferred in this matter,” Beatty said. “Why is that?”

The transfer was characterized by Lawler and others as a retaliatory gesture by the school board and Superintendent Antoine Gayles to physically distance HEA leadership members from one another at work. Union members staged after-school demonstrations earlier this year to highlight the teachers’ lack of contract and pay freeze.

Lawler’s new position also requires fewer qualifications and is less suited to her level of experience and salary, Beatty said.
“How much taxpayer money is going to be squandered in dealing with this situation, training a replacement, training Angela at her new job and replacing her at the high school?” Beatty asked. “And again, why?”

His statement followed a closed executive session during which the board spent more than two hours discussing an agenda that was noticeably shorter than usual, according to Lawler and others present.

“By your presence, we understand that you care about the children, and I believe that we all care about the children,” board President Hawaiian Thompson-Epps said. “As other board members said, we all disagree, lots of times. Lots of times it’s while we’re in the back room and sometimes when we come out it’s not clearcut. We are trying to work on it.”

Even with positive words from the school board, educators said that open and honest dialogue is necessary in the future.
“Communication should be the hallmark of any relationship between a board and their association. You might not always agree on things, because that’s how it goes, but communication must be open,” Beatty said. “Clearly, in this situation, your silence is deafening.”

Lawler also addressed the board, referring to the previous meeting at which many audience and board members appeared frustrated and angry.

“Although we met with some of the board members after the last board meeting, the issue still exists. We agreed we needed to talk further and iron out our differences,” Lawler said. “So far, no one from the HEA has heard from any board member since June 21. … All the HEA is asking is for a line of communication that is open and respectful. As the president for the past six-plus years, I have never experienced such difficulty.”

Candy Dale-Rawls, a Hillside resident whose two children attended Hillside public schools, was most concerned about the consequences that all the infighting will have on the the students of the school district.

“Somewhere along the line we all forgot why we’re really here. We have to remember. We say ‘it’s about the kids.’ Show me it’s about the kids, don’t just tell me,” Dale-Rawls said to the board. “We have to stop fighting each other and realize that we’re in the same boat.”

Board members listened to the public comments, waiting until the end to individually address the concerns raised by attendees.
“Please understand that this is not an easy job,” board member Joi Stanley said. “We are doing the best that we can possibly do to move this district forward.”

“I believe that we all have a common goal, and that is to do what’s best for our children,” board member Shalanda Thomas added. “One of the main reasons why I ran is to do my part to help our children.”
While the board members, before adjourning, emphasized that students’ interests would always be prioritized, improved relations with teachers and their unions were hardly mentioned.

“I get upset when I see the teachers stand up here and beg for what is theirs, for what belongs to them,” Dale-Rawls said. “Do you go to your job and beg for a raise? Or beg for what is really rightfully yours? I refuse.”