Former teachers await decision in arbitration against district

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Former teachers await decision in arbitration against district

Karishma Mehrotra

 

Read El Estoque’s previous article on Javier and Vanni’s transfers here.

Nearly a year after they were involuntarily transferred, former MVHS teachers Robert Javier and Debbie Vanni are now awaiting a final decision on an arbitration they filed with the Fremont Education Association, the local teachers’ union, against FUHSD regarding disputes over the way the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the teachers’ contract, was utilized in the transfers.

In the arbitration, a neutral individual, the arbitrator, listened to the testimonies of both sides. Two weeks after the hearing, which took place on March 26 and 27, a union lawyer and a district lawyer submitted briefs to the arbitrator with arguments made on their side’s behalf. The arbitrator will consider the hearing and briefs to reach her final decision on the correct application of the CBA, which is supposed to be released at the end of May 2012.

Javier and Vanni are requesting reinstatement at MVHS and the removal of harmful materials, from their personnel files, which they say include a letter from Superintendent Polly Bove referencing negative impacts the teachers had on the school and possibly a formal complaint. If the arbitrator sides with FEA, the district would be required to reinstate the two teachers at MVHS within a reasonable period of time, which is undecided at this point. If the arbitrator sides with FUHSD, the district will not be required to take any action.

The transfer under the teacher’s contract

In the arbitration between the teacher's union and the school district, Javier and Vanni are requesting reinstatement at MVHS and the removal of harmful materials, from their personnel files. If the arbitrator sides with FEA, the district would be required to reinstate the two teachers at MVHS within a reasonable period of time, which is undecided at this point. Photo illustration by Karishma Mehrotra.

Javier and Vanni were transferred under Article 8, Section 8 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the contract between FEA and FUHSD, which states that a unit member may be involuntarily transferred in the case of “compelling circumstances” at the “exclusive judgment of the Superintendent … [if] there is a safety risk … to the education environment of the school.”

This language was negotiated and agreed upon by both parties of the contract around 2003, according to math teacher and FEA Negotiating Team Chair Jon Stark, who is responsible for a great portion of the language and negotiation in this article. Stark, a former lawyer, stated that Article 8, Section 8 might have been formulated to deal with situations in which immediate action by the district would be necessary and any conversation with the union would be too slow. He also believes this is the first time Section 8 of the contract has been used by the district.

In a June 2011 letter notifying the teachers of the transfers, FUHSD Director of Human Resources Tom Avvakumovits stated that the teachers were transferred because the district believed the “English Department [at MVHS was] not a conducive educational environment and that it had a negative impact on the educational environment at the school and on the welfare of the employees in the department.”

After the transfer

According to Javier and Vanni, in response to the community’s reaction to the transfers, FUHSD Superintendent Polly Bove invited Javier and Vanni to meet in August 2011 with Academic Deputy Superintendent Kate Jamentz, Avvakumovits, Principal April Scott and a union representative.

Avvakumovits and Scott declined to comment for this article, citing that it was a personnel matter that couldn’t be discussed under the CBA.

According to Bove, Javier and Vanni, Bove said at the meeting that she would consider the information presented and make a decision regarding the transfer.

At this point, Javier and Vanni still felt the explanation for their transfer was unclear. Javier reported to Fremont High School and Vanni to Homestead High School at the beginning of this school year despite the fact that the two were still unsure about the district’s final decision.

On Aug.15, Bove gave both teachers identical letters further explaining the transfer. The letter states: “Our decision to take steps to reconstitute the department came about as the result of: concerns expressed by several [MVHS] teachers that ‘what was going on in the English Department was an embarrassment to our school’; concerns shared by [MVHS] administrators that English teachers had begun to request to be relieved of responsibility for attending meetings and doing collaborative work with others in the department; the investigation following a hostile workplace complaint made by two teachers.’”

Class of 2011 alumni Kasia Gawlas and Allison Sanders speak with English teacher Robert Javier on June 9, the day of graduation. Gawlas, an administrator of the Facebook group “Save Robert Javier and Debbie Vanni!”, helped coordinate students’ dissenting response to the transfers. Photo by Kevin Tsukii.

The letter states that the complaints and an investigation regarding the complaints found that the “hostile workplace” was not the fault of any particular person or people. Neither Vanni nor Javier were permitted to view the complaint.

The “big question mark”

Javier and Vanni said that in earlier years, the department had established a norm of communicating complaints directly to the individual rather than jumping to administration first. Both could not recall any instance in a meeting in which this nature of criticism was exchanged.

“It still leaves that big question mark for us,” Javier said. “Why weren’t these things addressed to all of us as a whole if this has been going on?… [And] why us? If we are not responsible for any of these particular things being said, it still doesn’t really explain to us why it’s us.”

The letter also states: “The selection of teachers to transfer was based on: Making a large enough number of transfers that the department would feel somewhat ‘newly constituted’ so that remaining staff would feel a change, consideration of which teachers were strong enough to hit the ground running and provide strong leadership in the schools to which they were transferred, the need to select teachers from ‘all sides’ of the disagreements shared in the investigation, teachers who had expressed to us some concern about their continuing ability to regain the stature they once held as a teacher in [MVHS].”

Based on this explanation, Javier and Vanni believe that they both were chosen because they were the teachers with the most experience. Javier and Vanni were teachers at MVHS for 16 and 22 years respectively.

“So when someone says, ‘Why were you transferred?’ — unless the answer is I’m old —  I don’t have an answer,” Vanni said.

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Our decision to take steps to reconstitute the department came about as the result of: concerns expressed by several [MVHS] teachers that ‘what was going on in the English Department was an embarrassment to our school.’”

 – FUHSD Superintendent Polly Bove in a letter to former English teachers Robert Javier and Debbie Vanni

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Vanni believes the transfer was handled poorly because administration did not give them an opportunity to fix the issue and the district conducted an insufficient investigation.

“Administration is aware of [the complaints against the department] and chose to do nothing about it [and] keep it a secret, and then in June, transfer two people,” Vanni said. “So you change [our] lives drastically based on half of a department’s interview and no interim step … To me, it’s almost completely disrespectful. I’ve been at that school longer than the principals and the vice principals … For them to make that decision without one word from my mouth seems pretty unfair.”

Javier believes that egos were in the way of a functioning work environment. He feels that many teachers at MVHS were not open to reflection and criticism about the manner in which they work.

“I feel that there was a huge sense of betrayal,” Javier said. “I feel that we were collateral damage.”

Vanni expressed her anger with the situation as well.

“I was at [MVHS] for 22 years,” Vanni said. “I had 22 years worth of stuff and in one week I had to get out of there. They wanted their keys.”

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