Cami loses another big tenure case–and Neil Thomas wins

Neil Thomas--denied due process
Neil Thomas–denied due process

State-imposed school superintendent Cami Anderson was handed a stunning legal blow yesterday with the release of an arbitrator’s decision demanding the reinstatement of a widely respected teacher whose only apparent flaw was opposition to Anderson’s policies. Neil Thomas, the father of former student school board member Jordan Thomas, must now get his job and pay and benefits back. He had been suspended since September.

“I have to admit, I cried when my lawyer told me the news,” said Thomas, 51, a former Newark police officer who is widely known throughout the district as a leading science teacher. He also was known as someone willing to testify on behalf of other teachers caught up in Anderson’s apparent relentless campaign against experienced, professional and independent teachers.

The decision by arbitrator Robert Simmelkjaer represents a major victory for Newark teachers and the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) which has been under siege for months in the face of at least a score of cases involving tenure charges against senior teachers. John Abeigon, the NTU’s director of organization, called on state education officials to stop Anderson from filing tenure charges based on faulty interpretations of the new tenure law.

“They are spending huge chunks of money on outside legal firms pursuing a flawed legal strategy that is losing,” said Abeigon. He said the money spent on the law firms to pursue tenure charges against teachers on flimsy grounds “would much better be used providing drug counselors and attendance counselors so the children of Newark aren’t dying in the streets.”

Jordan Thomas
Jordan Thomas

The Thomas case was the third major arbitration case won against Anderson in the last few weeks but what makes it sweeter for her critics is a back story that includes the courageous decision by Neil’s son–Jordan Thomas–to criticize state control of Newark schools while he was a member of the Newark school board.  It also includes a man–Thomas–with an unblemished record of 12 years before he became a target of Anderson’s ire. Finally, that back story also includes evidence of connivance on the part of state officials in trying to rewrite state policy on teacher tenure evaluations to help Anderson.

As in the recent unsuccessful case against Sandra Cheatham, a 40-year veteran of the Newark schools, Anderson tried to fire Thomas based on a bizarre interpretation of the law that attempted to mash together two different statutes and two different provisions of the same law.

The 52-page decision is technical and densely written but at its core is the question of whether Anderson could use the new teacher tenure law–the so-called TEACHNJ Act–to fire a teacher using evaluations conducted before the law and its implementing regulations took full, legal effect.

The law requires that teachers be brought up on tenure charges if they receive two annual evaluations of either partially effective or ineffective. Anderson contended that, for Newark, the first year of the law’s effectiveness was 2012-2013. Thomas was given two less-than-effective annual ratings for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014–but he contended the law had not yet gone into full effect. The arbitrator sided with Thomas and wrote:

The arbitrator wrote:

 “A plain reading of the statute indicates that the Legislature intended the 2012-13 school year to serve as a pilot year wherein school districts ‘test[ed] and refin[ed] their evaluation rubrics’ in preparation for full implementation in 2013-14. Although the District got a head start in developing its rubric in 2011-12, obtained the Commissioner’s approval of its rubric in October 2012, and apparently deemed the testing it conducted during this ‘pilot’ year sufficient to obviate a ‘second pilot,’ the Arbitrator finds that the NPS pilot, while educationally useful, was insufficient for the purpose of commencing teacher evaluations comparable to those subsequently conducted under TEACHNJ or for filing inefficiency charges in 2012-13. Although the District’s reliance on its 2011-12 pilot for various educational purposes is not subject to challenge, despite the fact that the NPS pilot only involved seven schools (approximately 10% of the Newark School enrollment), this preliminary pilot activity on the District’s part cannot supplant the statutory scheme that designated 2012-13 as the pilot year for New Jersey school districts and 2013-14 as the implementation year, particularly for the filing of inefficiency charges based on two consecutive years of ‘ineffective’ or ‘partially effective’ ratings.

In short, Anderson could not use the new law’s streamlined provisions to fire Thomas–who, until last year, had never had an unsatisfactory evaluation.

The decision contained a lot more–an insistence, for example, that all the detailed provisions for supporting teachers be utilized before they can be brought up on tenure charges. And  a ruling that arbitrators do, in fact, have the power to decide the sufficiency of cases against teachers even before  hearings.

Simmelkjaer also shot down a contention by Anderson that the so-called “merit-pay” provisions of the  NTU contract with the district was evidence that the new system was really in effect two years ago.

“It constitutes a quantum leap on the District’s part to equate the movement of teachers on the salary scale based on its new evaluation system as tantamount to the Respondent’s waiver of his statutory rights under TEACHNJ,” he wrote. And he also ruled any effort to fire  teachers without providing them with the support demanded in the law deprives them of “due process.”

The arbitrator also raised serious questions about the apparent effort by top officials of the state education department–possibly including David Hespe, the commissioner–to tilt the decision in favor of Anderson. The department had posted materials indicating school districts could not  use evaluations in 2012-2013 to make tenure decisions. Mysteriously, after Anderson started bringing tenure charges against experienced teachers, that guidance was removed. Then Peter Shulman, Hespe’s chief of staff, wrote a letter saying that, well, no, the department’s earlier advice didn’t really mean what it said–it only had to do with the granting, not the revocation, of tenure.

Simmelkjaer called Shulman’s sleazy letter “problematic and inconsistent with previous communications from NJDOE.”

Problematic–as in:  How can the state act as a neutral tribunal in tenure cases when it acts so blatantly as if it were trying to help Anderson win her cases? That’s like being tried by the prosecution without a judge. Still, the arbitrator’s decision makes it nice to know Chris Christie’s Republic of Fear  doesn’t own everyone in the state.

Thomas said he looks forward to going back to school–and getting the back pay he lost while on suspension. But, he said, he will never go back to the Lafayette Street School where he worked as a science teacher.

“The principal there has wanted me out and retaliated against me for my support of other teachers,” said Thomas, who said he brought a federal discrimination complaint against the principal, Maria Merlo.

Thomas, a lifelong Newark resident, and his wife Mari have three sons. Jordan, their youngest, is a Princeton freshman.

30

 

41 comments

  1. Me too

    Funny…Merlo is the same principal Sandra Chetham had. Oddly enough about 10 of her top teachers left for Elizabeth in 4 years. She fired me years ago based on “job performance” after a record of consistent excellent reviews, strong parent abd community ties, and consistently above average special education progress on state assessments. She found a loophole in tenure law and fired me for advocating for students who weren’t receiving appropriate services and for voicing areas of concern; all suggestions were personal attacks. That termination, in addition to a few other teacher terminations via her from the same year, was overturned based on it being unwarranted. I transferred schools.

    She is a manipulative…and should have been bounced out years ago. The school’s performance is in spite of her, not because of her. She is a …, verbally abusive, and … (kind of like some other leaders in our crumbling state). How many teachers have to leave in mass exodus–10 in 4 years all lost to Elizabeth?!? How many teachers have to have tenure cases and Donaldson hearings that result in her claims being deemed unfounded before someone starts checking her effectiveness? She is disgraceful. Ask a few parents, they’ll let you know. The teachers are too scared to talk…you end up in a new grade or have to move rooms if you go against her, or you get fired, or even ineffective ratings. Pick your poison or shut up is her motto.

    Bob Braun: Sorry, but for your protection and mine, I had to edit a few things. Also, I don’t like name-calling, even when I might agree with you. As my old English teachers used to tell me, show me, don’t tell me. Describe what she did, just don’t label her.

  2. Lee Means

    As one of Mr. Thomas former colleagues, I was privy to the harrasment and lack of due process he received at the hands of his direct supervisor, Maria Merlo, her agents, and the district lackeys. It is wondeful to see good people and great teachers finally vindicated and to have their dignity restored. When one of us uses his or her voice to demand and receive justice, it is a victory for all those too weary or frightened to do the same.
    Lee Means
    Teacher, colleague, and friend of Neil Thomas and Sandy Cheatham

  3. Kevin Johnson

    Ooorah! Outstanding! Its starting to fall apart! Her grip is beginning to loosen and her powers are weakening.

  4. Liz

    Go Mr . Thomas!
    It’s a Real shame that the Students, didn’t get to be greeted by him this Year at LSS. Mr.Thomas is the #1 Teacher there, the Students Loved him! Several students weren’t happy to even to say goodbye last yr. They just loved him so much. The beginning of school year, wasn’t a happy one. Students, were upset and disappointed to Not have Mr.Thomas. Good Luck to him wherever he may go. LSS is WAY over crowded! Ridiculous!

  5. Becca Field

    This is not even a state controlled district. She has gone off the reservation and must be stopped. Not a ruling at a time but altogether removed from her Wild West version of state control.

  6. elizabeth

    Yeah Mr Thomas! I couldnt be happier for you! Elyssa couldn’t believe what was going on and said you were an excellent teacher. Newark students need you. Welcome back!!! Do your victory dance!!

  7. Betty Maloney

    Congrats Mr. Thomas! so many student loved you at Morton St. Middle and talked so much about how they loved your science classes. Bravo for you for standing up for your rights and the rights of all students and teachers. I have been out on the picket line for Newark teachers and our Newark children.

    Betty Maloney, retired guidance counselor at Morton

  8. PR

    I cannot convey enough the feeling of joy and vindication for both Ms. Cheatham and Mr. Thomas. A huge congratulations are in order! I worked with both individuals and saw the positive, HIGHLY EFFECTIVE teaching they both CONSISTENTLY showed day in and day out. The moment both teachers, like MANY others disagreed with the superintendent was the moment of distinction where …, Mrs. Merlo saw opportunity to take vindictive actions.
    Lafayette street school was a place of high morality, was a place of excellent teaching and learning, where the students enjoyed coming to school each and every day. Because of teachers like Thomas, Cheatham and unfortunately the scores of other teachers who’ve been fortunate enough to leave. A blind eye must not be turned any more. If these two teachers were both from the same school- how EFFECTIVE is the administration? Ask John Abeigon how many teachers, how many highly effective educators Newark, specifically LSS has lost within the past 3 years due to this administration at this school. The number is appalling and the sad part is- only students lose this battle. They’ve lost education opportunities that ONLY these teachers could’ve provided but Newark and Mrs. Merlo let them down.
    Take a deeper look into her, you’ll find some real scary stuff.

    Bob Braun: You make some great points but let’s skip the name-calling.

  9. Source1

    Bob,

    Let me begin my comment by saying I am in FULL AGREEMENT with the arbitrator’s decision. I congratulate the Newark Teachers Union for their advocacy on behalf of Mr. Thomas, and I wish Mr. Thomas well in the future.

    However, I believe the comments made by a number of your readers are short sighted and their comments should be directed not toward the principal, but rather toward Superintendent Cami Anderson. A school principal does not have the authority to file tenure charges against a teacher. Tenure charges are filed by the District. It was Anderson’s decision to file the tenure charges against Mr. Thomas, and it was Anderson’s decision to file the tenure charges using an illegal procedure.

    It is important that your readers understand this distinction. There are so many examples of Anderson’s failures here in Newark, the Barringer High School fiasco, the One Newark opening day debacle, to name just a few. If anyone should be fired from the District, it is not Mr. Thomas. It should be Cami Anderson for her inability to follow the law, and for her rough handed rule over all those associated with the Newark Public Schools, students, teachers, administrators, and all staff members in the Distrct.

    Again congratulations to the NTU and to Mr. Thomas. And to the readers, remember to direct your anger and outrage to the real culprit here, Superintendent Cami Anderson.

  10. -A

    Thomas is exactly what Newark students need, a positive role model with real life experiences. It’s a shame what has happened at Lafayette, it was an incredible school 10 years ago. Since the change of administration there has been a mass exodus of GREAT teachers. If you ask those 10, 15, 20 teachers who left why they left. I’m sure they would all give you the same one word answer. The answer would be a name, and it’s not a type of wine.

  11. former newark resident

    I never seen a company (Lafayette street school) go out of their way to make their employees as miserable as possible. Specifically, Maria Merlo. Doesn’t she know that a happy employee is a more productive employee and not vice versa? It’s very strange the way she operates that ship. I have close ties to employees there and have heard everything. The oppressed will eventually rise up…does she not follow history? I tell all my friends to leave and I’m glad to see that some left…real world work aren’t lead by tyrants like Maria Merlo. #freelafayette

  12. shared experience

    I am so happy for Mr. Thomas and those that support justice and disclosure in public schools. I know first hand what it is like to work in a school where the administration is out to get you. It is not easy to stay strong in the face of this reform movement. The fear and chaos that they are creating scares many people into silence. Thank You Mr. Thomas for being strong and staying true to what is right and just.

  13. catherine

    Awesome news, thanks for those who fight back against this ignorant regime, Cami must go and must be held accountable for all this waste of money and also be held accountable for the terrible administrators she hires, they all must go!!!!!!!!!!! Keep fighting!!!!

  14. Galton

    Good for Mr. Thomas.
    As Bob has pointed out previously though, this only delays Anderson and the despicable Schulman for one more year.

    Essex County teachers need to let State Senator Teresa Ruiz know what they think of her ALEC written TEACHNJ law.

    And, Peter Schulman should be fired!

    Bob Braun: Ruiz? You don’t think she knows and has known?

    • EWPS

      Galton,

      Ruiz is a Christie tool. She has stated publicly that she did not understand how the law would affect teachers. If we could figure it out, why couldn’t she?

    • Galton

      Bob,
      As you may agree, teachers in general try to get along and focus on their students and keep out of politics. I posit that most teachers in NPS and Essex County do not know who their State Senator is and wouldn’t recognize Senator Ruiz if she served them their tenure charges.
      And, after taking the “credit” for plagiarizing TEACHNJ -which passed both houses UNAMIMOSLY AND HAD THE SUPPORT OF THE NJEA- she is keeping a low profile on her landmark legislation. She remains loyal to Christie and has stayed far away from helping Mayor Baraka or the students in Newark.

      I think Senstor Ruiz does not in fact feel ANY HEAT at all from teachers in NPS or anywhere else.
      Wish it were different but that’s the way I see it.
      Do you have any reason to see it otherwise?

      Bob Braun: No.

  15. DeeplyConcerned

    It’s so refreshing to have the law applied fairly and correctly for a change, rather than being corrupted and distorted to advance Christie’s agenda. Given the “problematic” behavior by a high ranking official in the Commissioner’s office to influence the outcome of this case (incredibly disturbing since tenure charges are filed with the Commissioner), I have to believe that the decision would’ve been very different if the Commissioner still had the final say in tenure cases.

    Bob Braun: You’re right on both counts.

    • Former Lafayette Student

      I am truly sorry that two wonderful teachers like Miss Cheatham and Mr Thomas had to go through garbage like this. They were both my teachers when I was a student at Lafayette Street School and they both made learning interesting and fun. The problem at this school is the principal and the vice principals. They need to leave and have new ones take their place. The teachers there are nice but we could tell that they were afraid. I wish the teachers at Lafayette luck working for Miss Merlo and hope that they can get the superintendent to leave Newark. Love you Mr Thomas and Miss Cheatham. Keep fighting.

      • Lafayette Student

        I am currently a student at Lafayette in 6th grade and u can say that Mr. Thomas was a funny and great teacher he was stick at times when he needed to be strict but he also made the lessons fun. I got very sad when I found out he left. Many rumors were going around of why he left but no one knew the real reason. And now I do know

  16. mike

    Bob. What stops Cami from sending him back down to Trenton on tenure charges with an ineffective or partially effective rating for this current year?

    Bob Braun: Technically, nothing. But he has been out on suspension for the last three months. My guess is he won’t be reassigned for a while and may end up in the rubber until the end of the year. It would be difficult to gice him a bad evaluation if he hasn’t taught. We can always hope someone will giver Cami a job and she will leave Newark.

    • mike

      There needs to be much stronger legal action against Cami and her boss Christie. This is all defensive. Teachers and the NTU need to go on the offensive. Cami and NPS is not hurt by this decision. They can just keep throwing spaghetti against the wall at tax payer expense until it sticks. There is no need for them to stop until they are significantly punished and therefore encouraged to stop these attacks on teachers.

  17. Another staffer

    Of course we’ve all been hoping…but who else would want her with all the bad press she’s getting? She’s kind of sinking her own ship, isn’t she? I hope her son never googles her when he gets older. What an embarrassment. I truly do feel sorry for him.

  18. Speaking out

    Congratulations to Mr. Thomas and the the NTU for continuing the fight to protect its members.

    Personally, I believe NPS went after Mr. Thomas because his son, Jordan, spoke out against The ONE NEWARK PLAN. I believe in my heart that the superintendent targeted Mr. Thomas’s father on purpose thinking this would “scare” and “shut-up” the other board members.

    Thankfully the law was on the side of “right,” and Mr. Thomas won his case.

    I too have been a target of an administrator that “hated” me for speaking out. These are scary times in Newark to be a teacher. Speaking out for the students and employees often puts a big red target on ones back.

    It also scares the heck out of everyone else, especially non-tenured teachers. They want to bury their heads in the sand and shut their doors. They think by doing this they will be safe, but the are not. NO ONE is safe in Newark at this time, especially people that speak out, but this should not stop us from speaking out against the injustice that is happening in our schools.

    Think of how different this beautiful country that we live in would be today had people not stood up during the Civil Rights Movement and peacefully fought for equal rights, despite the violence that was often directed at them.

    People of Newark, especially teachers, students and families of students in a Newark Public School, we need to continue to speak out about what is happening to our public education system. We need to push aside our fear, as frightening that is all by itself, and speak the truth. Too many children in a classroom. Not enough or NO services being provided the students and the teachers. Lack of training for new teachers, and yet being held accountable. (I think we all need to be held accountable, but how can one be held accountable if one isn’t trained in what is needed and expected?) Children missing (and dying) from schools and no one realizing they are missing because the attendance officers have been fired. Job titles being changed in name only to take the people out from under the union’s protection. So much is happening that people that do not work for NPS aren’t even aware of.

    The bottom line is the students of NPS are the ones suffering. We adults NEED to speak out. Speaking out in one voice will stop this madness eventually. I truly believe this will happen.

    Again, congratulations to Mr. Thomas, his family, and to all those that will follow Mr. Thomas.

  19. First Hand

    Can someone please explain to me how a teacher can be effective year after year (often evaluated by more than one person to gain this rating) and suddenly become partially effective or ineffective?

    Bob Braun: Easy. He gets targeted for reasons other than effective teaching. Tell that to the people who want to get rid of tenure.

  20. Galton

    “Tell that to the people who want to get rid of tenure.” Their certainly are many, maybe even a majority of people, who want to “get rid of tenure.” IN New Jersey however, Teresa Ruiz HAS ALREADY GOTTEN RID OF TENURE!
    Mr. Thomas has his job only because Ms. Anderson acted twelve months too soon. Mr. Thomas did not get his job back because of tenure, Mr. Thomas was reinstated due to what amounted to a technicality that will not exist next year.
    Senator Teresa Ruiz has tenure protection for educators.
    Arbitrators cannot consider the merit of the evaluation systems, only the prices (ie. Did Anderson follow Ruiz rules,)
    Tenure is gone, thank a local legislator or thief shepherd..

    • Total Agreement

      I agree that TeachNJ passing was and is the beginning of the end of tenure for teachers. My hope is that everyone that can vote will VOTE out ALL those that PASSED the TeachNJ Law. ONLY then will our voices be heard.

      In the meantime we need to get people like Senator Rice to propose and help him get it passed, a law that repeals the part of the TeachNJ law that has destroyed tenure.

      I’m not proposing that teachers not be held accountable, but frankly partially effective is the old basic. Not that I want to be basic in anything I do, but since when is being basic (C) failing?

      The TeachNJ Law is being used to systemically get rid of teachers that either make too much money, have too much experience, or speak out against what is happening in the world of education, but especially in Newark.

      This law is being used as a gun against the heads of people, and often the trigger is pulled with a silencer on it to mask the sound of the shot.

      This law is being used to keep people in the lane of education destruction, by keeping them silenced, because they fear if they speak out they will be targeted and suddenly rated partially effective or ineffective.

      Since the law does not address the actual content of the evaluation, but only if the procedures were followed, there will be many teachers next year that will find themselves under tenure charges without a paddle in the middle of the river.

      Tenure was not designed to protect poor teachers. Previously there were three years (now four years) to dismiss a teacher before obtaining tenure. That was and is plenty of time for a teacher to show growth and if no growth be let go be obtaining tenure.

      Since an evaluation is truly subjective, no matter what framework is used, now teachers that have been effective for years are suddenly becoming partially or ineffective. Why? Because the evaluator has been instructed to “get rid of” this person, and now can because of the TeachNJ Law.

      We need this law changed to protect people that are good and great teachers from being targeted and used as scapegoats and examples to show the power of the administration and to silence everyone into becoming sheep.

      • Galton

        Senator Ruiz used language taken directly from ALEC teacher evaluation reform laws and was support by EVERY LEGISLATOR in Trenton. Every single Assembly member and every state Senator.
        Without a massive effort, those legislators in Trenton will never admit a mistake and change course.
        Senator Ruiz should be held accountable for the damage caused to the NJ educator core. They are a dispirited group.
        So very sad to see what she has done for her 30 pieces of silver.

  21. Lee Means

    It is not name calling or inaccurare to name the culprit at Lafayette Street School
    She is empowered by the district to act without consequence to the extreme detriment of the students, teachers, and community. Teachers have lost money, connections to a community they care about, their health, and their dignity. That is injustice. Especially when thay injustice is perpetrated intentionally with bias, ego, and other prejudices as its foundations.

  22. Francisco V.

    Mrs. Merlo was a terrible principal, she suppresses individuality and all the teachers where/are scared of her. She always takes any situation to an exaggerated amount that everyone hated her. She was never understanding, and always acted like a person she wasn’t, she is not a caring person that cares about kids, she only cares about is filling her pockets with money and to have authority. She is the equivalent to a tyrant and she NEEDS to go, without her Lafayette would most likely be a blue ribbon school with excellent staff. But she has driven a lot of the amazing teachers for selfish reasons. Congratulations Mr. Thomas and a big thank you to all of those for reading and spreading awareness!

  23. Colleague

    I’ve worked with Neil Thomas for over 12 years and was his teaching partner during his first year in Newark Public School in an alternative education program. Needless to say, it takes someone with a special gift and love of children to flourish in such a challenging and often thankless position. Mr. Thomas then went on to become the Lead science teacher at various locations within the district. If one were to poll his former students, they would see that he was a popular and beloved teacher. I was ecstatic to hear about his victory. Great educators such as Mr. Thomas should be celebrated, not vilified.

  24. Pingback: Myths and Truths of Teacher Evals | Montclair Education Matters
  25. observer

    Cami, et al.’s actions are reprehensible. When, dear God, when will she just disappear from the educational landscape? Maybe her dear friend Michelle Rhee can get her a job at Scott’s peddling manure too? We can hope.

    BROVO to arbitrator who couldn’t be bought. Good luck to Mr. Thomas.

  26. One Of Mr.Thomas Student in 5th Grade

    I was one of Mr.Thomas student 2 years ago and he was an amazing teacher.He made me gain self confidence I was always the shy student who never participated because she was scared that her answers were wrong but once I entered Mr.Thomas class it was the best he told me that I shouldn’t be afraid of anything or anyone.I wish the best of luck to him.Once I went back to school on September I noticed he was gone I was brought to tears the first day of school. My new teachers asked what was wrong and I responded my hero left…

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