By Ron Leir
The union representing Belleville public school teachers is waging war with the Board of Education, claiming that the board is punishing its members for speaking out, failing to negotiate working conditions and spending big money on surveillance instead of on classroom teaching tools.
But Board President John Rivera said the board is acting in good faith on all fronts, particularly on investing $2 million over five years in a sophisticated video tracking system that, he says, is designed to keep everyone in the school system safe.
Meanwhile, in a puzzling personnel move, only five months after appointing Michael Vezza as board secretary/ business administrator at $123,103 a year, the board is seeking new candidates for that job and for an assistant business administrator. Applications were due by Feb. 1.
When asked about this development last week, Vezza simply shrugged and referred a reporter to Rivera, who said: “The current business administrator, with all the technological updates that are going on, due to personal obligations, doesn’t have enough time to give the services we need.”
As for the assistant B.A. posting, Rivera said: “We had a senior accountant who left us for a job in California. We don’t know if we’ll fill the position but we thought it would be prudent to advertise for one in the meantime.”
In any event, Belleville Education Association President Michael Mignone said last week that the BEA, represented by Newark attorney Sanford Oxfeld, has filed two unfair labor practice complaints with the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) against the superintendent and board.
Mignone said the filings allege that the district “violated our contractual agreement” by unilaterally installing cameras in classrooms and by “lengthening the school day” in asking teachers to “come early and leave early” without negotiating either condition.
Another unfair labor practice complaint “in process” will challenge the board’s disciplining of certain BEA members as what the BEA characterizes as reprisal actions for publicly criticizing board actions, said Mignone, who said he has been suspended, with pay, from his job as Middle School math teacher since Jan. 2.
Additionally, Mignone said, the BEA has filed a grievance in response to “around 30” involuntary teacher transfers, several of which, he said, were triggered by the district’s moving all sixth-graders to the Middle School last September.
BEA members, joined by union members from other Essex County communities and NJEA representatives, crowded into the high school senior lounge for last Monday night’s board meeting to show solidarity. The board abandoned the auditorium for lack of heat.
Mignone reminded the board that the BEA has previously complained “about the district’s decision to fund an expensive surveillance system” instead of providing “basic supplies” such as updated computers “necessary for our students’ success.” He said that Belleville teachers are supported by parents and business owners “united in their passion to secure a bright future for Belleville’s students.”
And NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan spoke about an “employee climate survey” conducted by the BEA which, she said, disclosed that “nearly 100%” of those responding claimed they are subject to “intimidation” and about two-thirds of the responders felt that the board was to blame.
“You see,” Blistan said, “they watched their union president be brought up on tenure charges – coincidentally just after speaking out against the intimidation tactics at the last board meeting. You see, actions demonstrate that members of the BEA are being mistreated, vilified and denigrated. … This reality is unacceptable. … Bullying is against the law. … Sit down with the [BEA] leadership and our NJEA staff to right these wrongs.”
Last week, Rivera responded to some of the concerns raised by the union, saying that the board was doing everything it could to improve the electronic infrastructure in schools by installing new wiring to provide internet service and new phones in classrooms.
“This board has spent more on textbooks and supplies in the past three years than any previous board,” Rivera said, to ensure that students have what they need to satisfy the state’s Common Core standards. “As soon as we know what the state wants us to do, we’ll do accordingly,” he added.
“Each elementary school is getting a bank of 30 computers that can go to any class when needed,” Rivera said. “The Middle School is getting a bank of 60 computers, as is the high school, on top of what we already have in place.
“The wiring [for computers and security systems] is pretty much done; our computer banks should be installed in the next 60 days,” he said.
Talking up the virtues of the district’s security/ surveillance system, which also has an audio capability, Rivera said that teachers “can hit a panic button” in their classrooms in response to “an emergent situation,” such as “a child having a seizure.”
Once the alarm is activated, a security guard can check a monitor showing the classroom and “get an ambulance,” Rivera said.
Teachers shouldn’t fear that an eye or ear in the sky is checking in on them because applying the technology that way is “not part of their evaluation process – it’s just for safety,” he said.
Similarly, Rivera said, by issuing RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) cards to students, school staff has a better chance of finding a lost child by tracing the card’s radio signals in and out of school. And, he said, if a student complains that a teacher harassed or hit them in class, the system may show that, in fact, the student may have been somewhere else when the alleged incident happened.
But in any case, Rivera said, “security is not negotiable. The system is pretty much installed at this point and we’re not going to get rid of it.”
Asked whether he was bothered by the fact that Bruce Kreeger, the head of Clarity Technologies Group of Mine Hill, the company hired by the board to install the security system, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for failing to pay more than $77,000 in federal withholding taxes for employees in a company he owned in 2007, Rivera said that when the matter arose, Kreeger — who paid back the money — “was not having any contact with students,” that his current firm, Clarity, was properly licensed and “is totally above board.” The BEA has questioned whether the company was properly credentialed when it submitted a bid proposal to install the system.