By Ron Leir
An arbitrator has dismissed 12 of 13 tenure charges filed March 21 by the Belleville Board of Education against a middle school math teacher who doubles as the head of the teachers’ union so Michael Mignone’s job is safe – at least for now.
In his July 28 decision, arbitrator Joel Weisblatt nixed the BOE’s effort to fire Mignone on the basis of “conduct unbecoming” and “manifesting unfitness to serve as a teaching professional and role model to youth.”
The BOE focused its charges on three episodes:
*A classroom conversation on Oct. 16, 2013, that touched on students’ wearing electronic security tags deployed by the district.
*A Dec. 20, 2013, conference call involving Mignone, the parent of one of his students, a guidance counselor and a BEA representative.
*A confrontation between Mignone and Superintendent Helene Feldman on Feb. 4, 2014, in the BOE office.
In the first incident, the BOE said Mignone deviated from the curriculum by entertaining a discussion of the district security system, raised the spectre of kids contracting cancer from wearing the tags, warned students their privacy would be invaded because the devices allowed them to be “tracked” outside school, and invited them to get their parents to complain publicly that the BOE was wasting its money on a questionable security system.
Weisblatt said that while Mignone probably “showed poor judgment” in spending 20 minutes of class time on something unrelated to math, the evidence from the testimony of students didn’t support the BOE’s allegations and that it was a student who raised the subject, not Mignone. He noted that after Mignone received a letter of reprimand from a supervisor for an “inappropriate use” of classroom time, that there were no further such incidents.
In the second incident, the BOE said the parent on the call – who had previously griped at a BOE meeting that a teacher hadn’t returned her phone call about her child not being allowed to make up a class assignment – “felt threatened” by Mignone’s alleged efforts to “disrupt her child’s special needs education” by having him removed from his class, by suggesting she write to the superintendent that their conflict stemmed from a communication snafu and that Mignone violated her child’s privacy by allowing a union representative to listen in on the call and take notes.
In this case, Weisblatt noted that the issue initially raised by the parent was resolved in a follow-up call from Mignone, that testimony by the counselor indicated that in the subsequent conference call, “no threat was implied,” that Mignone asked the parent if she wanted to have her son switch classes as a matter of good faith, and that the letter to the superintendent could help to resolve a misunderstanding so the charges seemed unsupported by the evidence. However, Weisblatt said he felt the BOE made its case that Mignone “improperly involved” a union representative in the conference call “without any disclosure to the parent,” adding that, “It is at the very least an ethical breach … and further, it compromised the privacy of the student and the parent.” That behavior, Weisblatt concluded, warranted a 30-day suspension without pay for Mignone.
In the third incident, the BOE said Mignone defied a “directive” from the superintendent – about a week after the teacher had been suspended with pay – forbidding him from appearing on BOE property, except for unionrelated activities, which had to be conducted in the superintendent’s office, by entering the high school to use an office designated for union work on Feb. 4, 2014, and by causing a “disruption” to school business by arguing with a staff member. (The suspension was later withdrawn and refiled a bit later.)
Weisblatt said that he found “no written evidence of a directive” from the superintendent, adding that Mignone “accessed a ‘board employees only’ stairwell in the high school,” thereby minimizing possible contact with students. He said testimony by school staff disproved any “disruption” of administrative work. Weisblatt ruled that Mignone should be “reinstated and made whole for any loss of compensation” beyond the 30-day loss of pay meted out for the privacy compromise incident.