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Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair school district was hoping an Essex County court would order teachers to classrooms immediately — even before the district’s lawsuit against the teachers union for refusing to do so proceeds. 

But Chancery Court Judge James Paganelli turned the school district down last week. And he raised questions about whether the district has yet proved its buildings are safe.

The district alleges in its lawsuit that the Montclair Education Association — which refused the district’s plan to begin a hybrid learning schedule last month, after nearly a year of remote-only learning in the coronavirus pandemic — is conducting an illegal teacher strike. Teachers have continued remote lessons throughout the dispute.

The district had asked the court for a temporary injunction, keeping the union from engaging in or encouraging any “strike, work stoppage, slowdown or concerted effort to deny the district the required manpower,” or otherwise interfering in the district’s operation of its schools. Paganelli denied that request, as well one to issue orders to keep the MEA from soliciting others to its cause, threatening or coercing anyone from engaging in their duties for the district, or taking unjustified time off. 

Paganelli found Feb. 10 the district hadn’t demonstrated “how continued remote learning would not address the harm to the students. With the required remote learning there would not be the loss of ‘one day’s education.’” And he said the district hadn’t explained its claim that staying remote would open the district up to “potential liability, including potential compensatory education claims.”

Paganelli also wrote that while the district had correctly cited Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 175 — affirming the value of in-person learning for children and directing districts to resume some level of in-person learning or set a timetable to do so safely — the district “has failed to articulate how it has complied with the health and safety standards” set by the state, “except, perhaps ‘A plan to ensure that indoor facilities have adequate ventilation.’”

The condition of the school buildings has been a sticking point in negotiations between the MEA and the school district. An engineer’s report last fall found ventilation issues throughout the district that it estimated would cost $26 million to fix. The district has since purchased 400 air purifiers and made other adjustments it says make classrooms safe to use, but the MEA has said it’s not satisfied with those improvements and that it never received an updated engineering report showing they’re enough. The district has released lists of which rooms received ventilators, but hasn’t answered questions about how to interpret them.

Paganelli noted the district said Charles H. Bullock School was not included in the ventilation assessment because, as a new school building, it was presumed to have up-to-code equipment.

“Unclear to this court is whether this school is integral to the matter at bar. Moreover, this court is left to guess regarding ‘should have been designed’ and ‘provided that it has been maintained and serviced’ and ‘should be in good working order,’” he wrote.

But Paganelli did write that the court “accepts the arguments that the defendant does not have the right to strike or ‘dictate’ the modality of education,” and gave the MEA until March 1 to show cause that he shouldn’t order the teachers to classrooms as the district requests. The district will have until March 5 to reply, and the parties are expected in court for a hearing March 9.

“After reading the court order from Judge Paganelli, I feel we are vindicated in our stance,” MEA President Petal Robertson said in a statement provided by New Jersey Education Association spokesperson Meredith Barnes. “He acknowledged that we never stopped working and that the district has not sufficiently proven that the schools are safe. While this has been difficult, we believe we must come to a solution that gets our students and staff back into the buildings as soon as they are ready.

“At this time, we urge Superintendent Dr. Ponds and the district to drop their case against the MEA and come back to the table ready to collaborate on a plan that facilitates the safe and organized return to in-person instruction. That’s all we have wanted and all we still want.”

In a brief statement, the school district acknowledged the court didn’t issue the temporary injunction it wanted, and the upcoming court deadlines. “The district intends to proceed accordingly,” Ponds wrote.

At Charles H. Bullock School, the Anti-Racism and Equity Committee of the school’s PTA released a petition Friday calling for the district to reframe the conversation around schools reopening, which the committee said had become adversarial and rancorous. The petitioners called for the discussion to be reframed as a collaborative process through the lens of restorative justice, with the awareness that teachers, families and administrators are all working with the best interests of the students in mind. 

“The teachers, staff, parents and, most importantly, students of this district deserve real transparency and nothing less than open, direct and honest communication from the district as the negotiations continue,” the committee wrote in its petition. “In return, as parents we stand ready to do what we can to ensure that teachers and students feel safe to return to in-person learning. We need to come to an equitable resolution so that our community can begin to heal the deep divisions that have been heightened in this process.”