The Commonwealth Employment Relations Board ruled in favor of South Elementary School teachers in an appeal of last year’s decision by the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations.
While DLR ruled in favor of the Andover Education Association on two key points in a decision issued last September, the union that represents Andover Public School teachers appealed the portion of the ruling saying the Andover School Committee did not violate state law when an investigator looking into complaints of a hostile work environment at South Elementary for the committee told teachers not to discuss what they had talked about during the investigation.
“(W)e hold that this was an overly-broad directive that could chill reasonable employees from engaging in protected, concerted, activity. We reverse,” CERB said in its Aug. 16 ruing on the appeal.
As part of the DLR ruling, APS and the School Committee were ordered to post a public notice alerting employees to the ruling and that it would not retaliate against employees participating in or interfere with labor activity protected under state law. Andover School Committee Chair Susan K. McCready signed the notice Tuesday, signaling an end to a conflict that began in 2019 under former South Elementary Principal Tracey Crowley:
APS Communications Director said the ruling clears up an ambiguity in state law “concerning how investigators may instruct witnesses about collaborating in order to maintain the integrity of investigations.
“The Andover School Committee appreciates the CERB’s recognition of the law’s ambiguity and equally the need to preserve the integrity of workplace investigations,” Kieser said.
Andover News has asked the union for comment and will update this story when we hear back..
In the decision issued last year, hearing officer Sara Skibski Hiller found Crowley violated state labor law by telling union members “she knew they were talking about her at their meeting and told a bargaining unit member that she knew the member had said negative things about her at a union meeting.” Crowley also violated state law by rescinding “her decision to remove a written reprimand from a bargaining unit member’s file in retaliation for engaging in concerted, protected activity.”
Those comments created “an unlawful impression of surveillance,” Hiller wrote.
The APS investigation started in late 2019 when an anonymous letter accused union members of calling people by insulting nicknames and making derogatory comments about students, staff and administrators at the school. Those comments included “dumb and dumber,” “angry midget,” and two vulgar epithets, according to the investigator, who interviewed about 40 South Elementary employees. The investigator found merit to the allegations, and then Superintendent Sheldon Berman sent letters of reprimand to the union members named in the anonymous complaint.
Last week’s decision on the appeal extends the findings of wrongdoing to the School Committee. CERB said the investigator tapped by the school district to look into the complaint violated the teachers’ rights under state labor law when she told them to only discuss what they were asked during investigation interviews with a union representative.
“Under these circumstances, employees could similarly construe a broad instruction from an attorney with the firm that represented the School Committee in labor matters not to disclose what was discussed during the investigation as prohibiting employees from discussing their opinion of the administration with one another, even if done in the context of addressing workplace concerns caused by the administrator’s conduct,” CERB said in its ruling on the appeal. The “investigation and the potential discipline resulting from it are themselves terms and conditions of employment that employees have a right to discuss due to the obvious impact such matters have on terms and conditions of employment, especially continued employment.”
“The School Committee could have avoided this outcome in a manner that balanced both parties’ interests by providing clear, time-limited instructions to employees about what they could and could not disclose to anyone other than their Union representative about the interview and the reasons for these restrictions,” CERB concluded.
Photo: Andover Public Schools