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South Orange Middle Parents and Students Challenge Administrators Over Non-Tenure Choice

Parents meet with administration to find out why the contracts of two popular teachers were not renewed but talk centers on the process rather than reasons.

Correction: Two Board of Education members, Bill Gaudelli and Andrea Wren-Hardin, attended the morning meeting. The remaining members attended the evening meeting. Our apologies for the error.

Updated: The second Monday meeting saw about 75 -- standing room only -- parents and students gather for a two-hour meeting. Seven of nine Board of Education members were in the audience.

Patch will have a full report on the Monday evening meeting later today.

Earlier this spring, Brian Osborne, the district’s superintendent of schools, traveled to Trenton to push for controversial tenure reform that would change the ways teachers are graded, earn and keep tenure. It’s an issue being debated across the country, but is particularly heated in New Jersey where the state is testing a new evaluation model, and legislation is pending to change an arcane system once designed to protect teachers from random firing but now provides lifetime job security.

“It’s time to reform tenure now,” said Osborne, in support of the legislation being sponsored by Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. Quoted in NorthJersey.com, Osborne said he feared the work designing the bill and improving teacher evaluations “will die on the vine if the legislation is not passed, and we let the moment slip away.”

Those teacher evaluations are at the heart of the local debate in South Orange and Maplewood schools, where the superintendent is now embroiled in what seems a perennial rite of spring over public discontent over the decisions regarding teacher evaluations submitted by school principals – particularly those teachers who have not yet earned tenure. This season has been especially contentious with the non-renewal of two popular middle school social studies teachers at South Orange Middle.

Parents heard two slim possibilities on Monday morning that either Osborne (by resolution) or the district’s Board of Education (after a hearing) could decide to rehire the teachers.

One parent expressed hope that Osborne’s views on the issue could “evolve” in much the same way as President Obama’s on same-sex marriage – especially in light of what the superintendent has since learned about the caliber of the teachers from both students and parents, neither who were part of the evaluation process.

On Monday morning, Osborne met for more than two hours with about 40 parents. While the conversation covered how teachers are evaluated and outlined the process for appeals, the meeting was notable for its lack of specifics.

“The district is muzzled by the confidentiality law,” Osborne said, later reiterating, “We can not divulge our rationale to you.”

Much of the public outcry has included pleas that the decision be changed. If the teachers follow through with appeals, they would have the opportunity to convince the BOE to reverse the superintendent’s recommendation during a process known as a “Donaldson Hearing." And for the first time, Osborne said on Monday that he also could rehire the teachers by presenting a resolution to the Board of Education.

The lack of specifics is frustrating for parents and middle school students who have petitioned, written letters, and protested the non-renewal of contracts for Steven Cohen and Kathleen McCort, teachers who they credit for turning students on to social studies and preparing them for the rigors of high school history, where a record number of ninth-grade students, many their former students, have been selected for advanced placement in U.S. History.

It’s possible that more information could come to light if the teachers request the superintendent’s written statement for reasons for the non-renewal, which is the first step in the appeals process. The superintendent said he could not comment on whether such a request has been made, and while it is widely believed by parents that the teachers have appealed, that has not been confirmed.

But even if the teachers share the superintendent's statement with the public, it is unlikely to satisfy the demand for full disclosure on how the teachers were rated on an evaluation rubric that relies, in part, on classroom observation that rates specific performance standards for effective teaching.

Not everything that goes into making the decision would be included in the superintendent’s statement. Osborne described such statements as “pithy” and “not an exhaustive explanation.”

The outcry from the community over the non-renewals is particularly strong given the popularity of the teachers who were evaluated by a first-year principal. Joseph Uglialoro stepped in at a critical juncture as the district adopted plans to de-level academic classes and begins an international baccalaureate program.

The principal, Osborne said, “has my unequivocal support.”

some large and some small, Uglialoro said on Monday morning. “All those changes have brought different levels of stress to the community.”

South Orange Middle is among the schools the state has identified as that have the largest in-school achievement gap (also included are Maplewood Middle and Clinton Elementary). The state plans to target these schools for additional training or programs to address the specific shortcomings.

Last week, the state Department of Education released the . Data from the NJASK show students at SOMS generally scoring lower than students in comparable districts and across the state in both language arts and math.

“There are great challenges in front us,” Uglialoro said.

Meanwhile, On Sunday night they the Central Office with posters demanding that the teachers remain on their jobs, this time adding their pink detention slips from previous protests among the flyers. Their handiwork had been removed by the time parents began arriving for the Monday morning meeting.

Tom Morris June 05, 2012 at 12:49 AM
“The district is muzzled by the confidentiality law,” What a load of B###S###.
John Davenport June 05, 2012 at 04:35 AM
The community is looking for some kind of a resolution or compromise on this issue. A comment I saw on MOL by one frustrated parent probably points towards one of several possible ways out. She suggested that the district at least reverse the decision on one of the two teachers. That is not ideal, but it would be something. In the morning meeting, superintendent Osborne apparently confirmed that he could indeed reverse these decisions not to renew (one or both), before the teachers would need to appeal to the school board for a last chance -- something I noted tonight that teachers are often advised against doing, even if they have a very strong case, because it puts off possible future employers. And teachers hardly ever win; I think only one or two have prevailed in 10 years. So this is down to the superindentent and principal to find a solution. In normal cases, we'd just say well, this is the supervisor's discretion. Not this time; this is an exceptional case, and something seems to be seriously wrong. Some 'give' back to the community is urgently needed here, for the well-being of the whole community.
Morrisa da Silva June 05, 2012 at 11:37 AM
What is so troubling to me - is that it is apparent that there really need be no good reasons for non-renewal. After putting in 3 years and in Mr. Cohen's case 4.5 years into the district it is perfectly ok to let these stellar and uber- effective teachers go, to say, hire your brother-in-law or your college buddy. That is just wrong.
Marian Cutler June 05, 2012 at 12:08 PM
The stark reality, after sitting through the morning meeting on this, was "there need not be a 'wrong'". The decision for non-renewal is subjective, need not be tied to the pilot evaluation process the District talks about and can be as straightforward as choosing to bring in another teacher. The litmus here is as long as it's not discriminatory then the reasons are considered rationale.
John R WIllis June 05, 2012 at 12:12 PM
This is a typical case with the schools here in our fair cities. The BOE claims one thing (in this case mostly silence), the Administration (Superintendent and Principal) cites selected parts of various laws and rulings that perpetuate the stonewalling and non responsive attitude of the current (and past) kings, and the parents want only the best for junior (regardless of cost). There are two major players missing in all this. The first, and what should,be the MOST important are the children. In some sense, based on appearance at face value, the children actually seem to like and respect these two teachers and learned from them, I guess that is a trivial finding to the system. The second is the taxpayer. I would like to see a vote that would ask taxpayers to vote for retention of these two teachers against retention of a single administrator. The administrators have the best tenure plan, there is no standard and no plan. In closing, I would like to submit for consideration that the Principal should be fired for failing to properly prepare the two teachers for tenure and the Superintendent be formally reprimanded for failing to properly supervise the Principal. In the meantime, the children,.... Oh, Yes, the children, what about them? John R Willis
Tom Morris June 05, 2012 at 02:45 PM
This whole incident demonstrates why teachers need due process rights. I am not advocating for a "life-time guaranteed" job but a recognition that teachers should not simply be "at-will" employees. Children/students need stability while growing up especially in the schools attended. As parents we need to demand this from the politicians and the administrators and hold them accountable instead of shifting their responsibilities. I agree with Mr. Willis.
MandM June 05, 2012 at 10:32 PM
It's clear that the principal has no experience with middle schoolers. Look how far the children had to go to be heard. Not once in the week of May 14 did the children, at any point, feel as if they were heard. Students at the evening meeting echoed the same thing my child has been saying throughout this situation. Principal U has been extremely condescending and it is due to his inability to understand our children and our community. He had signs ripped down (by 6th graders), pulled a sign off a girl's front, kept students out of School in Action night, told a group (at the sit down) that he was surprised "it lasted this long". Do we want someone like that in our schools? No.

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