The state administration of the Newark public schools has banned the top staff officer of the Newark Teachers Union from a school notorious both for its poor physical condition and the efforts of its principal to fire tenured teachers. The district’s leaders also have threatened to arrest the union chief, John Abeigon, who took pictures of vermin infestation, loose paint chips, and possible fire hazards.
Abeigon, the union’s director of organization, said he came to the Lafayette School Annex with a representative of Newark’s locally controlled health department, exercising a clause in the district giving union leaders access to schools.
But Laurette Asante, a lawyer for the district’s “talent office,” accused Abeigon of “inappropriate conduct.” She called him “rude and belligerent” and charged him with disrupting the “instructional program by initiating a conversation with a classroom teacher…while the class was in session.”
Abeigon was defiant in response to the ban and arrest threats, saying he would “continue to represent my membership–ban or no ban.” He said the NTU contract allows him to be there and city health regulations require it.
The chief union organizer said the NTU would seek an injunction overturning the ban and condemned the threat of arrests as “unprofessional.”
Abeigon said he was there to follow up on a Public Employment Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSHA) complaint. He said he was “met with resistance” from Maria Merlo, the school’s principal. He said he left and returned with a city health inspector.
“When I first got there, I noticed all of the fire detectors were open (without) batteries,” he said. He said annual health and safety certificates had not been updated for two years.
He said he and the city inspector, together with an entourage from the school and NPS headquarters, inspected the school for three hours. Abeigon said the city inspector “left them with a written to-do list that satisfied me and the inspector.”
Asante banned Abeigon from entering the school until the end of June and warned that, if he entered “any property under the jurisdiction” of the state administration and repeated what he did at Lafayette, “you will be charged with trespassing and removed from the building by either the NPS security personnel or the Newark police department.”
Abeigon said, “The threat of arrest under these circumstances is inappropriate and cowardly in a democracy,” he said.
Merlo has been the point person for efforts by Cami Anderson, appointed to run the state’s largest district three years ago by Gov. Chris Christie, to battle the union over job security and other issues. Using a stretched interpretation of New Jersey’s new tenure law, Merlo tried to fire two popular teachers–Sandra Cheatham, a 40-year veteran, and Neil Thomas, an active unionist who testified in behalf of fellow teachers who ran afoul of the principal.
Arbitrators rejected both attempts, but Abeigon said the principal may have “dozens” more teachers in her crosshairs. In the past, the union leader said, dissenting teachers faced “radical transfers.” For example:
“You taught third grade for ten years and raised an issue at a faculty meeting and, starting the next day, you’re reassigned to eighth grade.”
He said 13 teachers resigned from the school last year and four more this year. Two years ago, the staff voted “no confidence” in the principal and, when an Anderson representative came to the school to talk to the teachers, he insisted that Merlo be present.
Unsurprisingly, Abeigon added, “no one voiced any concerns.”