State rules Andover illegally fired educator for union activities

The state board in charge of public-sector labor relations ruled in favor of an Andover High School English teacher on July 2, determining that the district had illegally fired her last September for engaging in protected concerted activities.

The decision in favor of Jennifer Meagher was reached by the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board, the highest adjudicating body under the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations. The CERB ordered the Andover School Committee to stop retaliating against Meagher, to reinstate her to her former position at AHS and make her “whole for all economic losses she suffered as a result of the School Committee’s unlawful action …”

“I am relieved that the board has completely exonerated me,” said Meagher. 

Meagher has held several substitute teaching and part-time positions in the region since losing her teaching job in Andover last September. “I am really looking forward to teaching in my own classroom again,” she said.

The 53-page decision was unequivocal in its finding that Meagher’s advocacy was legal and not, as the district contended, unlawfully inciting teachers to strike or engage in a work stoppage or withhold services. It also was not “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” as the district claimed.

 “This was a very important decision for MTA members, our affiliates and other unionized public employees,” said Lee Weissinger, director of MTA’s Legal Division. “Our commitment to strong affiliates, strategic action and member engagement rests on our ability to protect members who suffer adverse consequences because of their willingness to become involved. MTA’s attorneys and field staff were proud to work tirelessly with the Andover Education Association to achieve justice in this case.”

MTA field representative Lisa Nazzaro worked on behalf of Meagher and the AEA locally while MTA attorneys Ira Fader and Laurie Houle handled the case before CERB.

The CERB decision, reached by Chair Marjorie Wittner and member Harris Freeman, made clear that Meagher’s excellent performance as a teacher was never in question. 

“There is no dispute that Meagher received positive work performance evaluations,” the decision noted, adding, “[H]er most recent evaluation, received in May 2011, stated that she more than fulfilled her job responsibilities as required by contract” and that “her impact on students was ‘powerful, her contributions to the school are many, and her presence in the Andover school community is powerful.’”

Kerry Costello, president of the AEA, applauded the ruling as a vindication of Meagher and a positive decision for all teachers who seek to advocate on behalf of employees in contract disputes.

“Teachers have the right to express their views and to urge their colleagues to act in favor of or against proposals that affect their wages, hours or working conditions,” said Costello. “Protecting those rights is one of the most important functions of a labor union, and it is one that the state board has reaffirmed with this decision.
Moreover, in education, working conditions impact learning conditions for our students.”

The disagreement stemmed from a contract dispute between the AEA and the School Committee that extended over several years. In the 2011-12 school year, the most contentious issue concerned the School Committee’s proposal to change the high school schedule, resulting in an increased teaching load and the elimination of faculty positions.

Meagher, who had been the AEA vice president and chair of the association’s action team, was among the high school teachers who opposed these changes. She and others voiced their opposition at School Committee meetings and through picketing, but the School Committee was adamant and the contract talks dragged on.

On June 10, 2012, three days after leaving office as the AEA vice president, Meagher sent an e-mail from her home account to 60 colleagues in which she described how she was going to protest the proposed scheduling change and encouraged others to do the same. She advocated for more picketing, attending an upcoming school committee meeting, and voting “abstain” on self-study reports that were completed as part of the high school’s accreditation process.

In firing Meagher, the School Committee argued that teachers had an obligation to vote “yes” or “no” on those reports and that encouraging them to abstain violated a state law that prohibits public employee conduct that “induces, encourages or condones a strike, work stoppage, slowdown or a withholding of services.”

The CERB rejected that argument, noting that the option to vote “abstain” was included on the ballots with the knowledge and tacit approval of the school administration and had been a voting choice used by many teachers without repercussions prior to Meagher’s e-mail. Further, the CERB noted, there was no requirement that staff members vote one way or the other on the reports, just that they participate in the process.

“I felt that abstaining was a legitimate option since the reports were all based on the workload at the time and not the future workload that had been proposed but not yet approved,” Meagher explained.

While some teachers did abstain and others voted “no,” the self-study reports received enough votes to be approved. Even if they hadn’t been, however, the CERB ruling noted that there would have been another opportunity in the fall for staff to vote on the reports.

“This ruling makes clear that Andover High School’s accreditation was never put at risk by employees advocating on behalf of a fair contract,” said Costello.

Meanwhile, also in June of 2012 a fact-finder brought in to help resolve the stalled contract talks recommended a compromise on the scheduling issue. She recommended that the schedule be changed along the lines proposed by the School Committee for two years, during which time a joint labor-management committee would study the impact of the changes and make recommendations about scheduling at the high school in time to be considered in the next contract.

Both the AEA and School Committee ratified a new contract in line with the fact-finder’s recommendations, and the new high school schedule has been in effect since the start of the 2012-13 school year.

Despite those developments, the district dismissed Meagher last September. If it doesn’t successfully appeal the CERB ruling, the district must reinstate her and compensate her for the loss of income she suffered as a result of the district’s actions. The School Committee has 30 days from July 2 to decide whether to appeal the decision to the court system.

Click here to read the decision issued by the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board in favor of Jennifer Meagher.

Andover Townsman op-ed - July 10, 2013.