2013-03-28 / Front Page

Supt. Lukon meets with teachers

Communication problems stem from system change
By Margo Sullivan

Superintendent Marcia Lukon and about 15 union teachers met March 20 at Lawn Avenue School to discuss communication problems in the district.

The problems first came to light when Cynthia Cherney, president of the teachers union, read a letter during open forum at the School Committee’s Jan. 17 meeting. The letter was signed by the Jamestown Teachers Association and described Lukon as a remote leader who repeatedly ignored teacher input about the state’s new evaluation model.

The union went on to accuse Lukon of “deceptive budget practices” and retaliating against staff who disagreed with her.

At the time, the School Com- mittee asked the union for specifics supporting the accusations. It also required Lukon to respond to the allegations in writing. The union turned in its clarifications last month, and the school board responded by defending the superintendent’s actions. It disagreed with the assertion that Lukon was using deceiving budget practices.

Lukon emailed her responses to the teachers last week, minus any matters related to personnel. Those matters will be discussed with the School Committee during executive session. Lukon also said she will not make her responses public.

During the discussion last week with teachers, Lukon said she respected them and had communicated their problems to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. She went on to say that she agrees with the teachers that the state Department of Education is moving too fast with the new evaluation model. Lukon has expressed her own misgivings to the commissioner.

During the two-hour workshop, Cherney said 47 of the 52 voting members of the teachers union supported the no-confidence vote. However, she said, many of them feared retaliation and did not attend the meeting. (School administration attended the workshop, which was organized by the School Committee.)

When Cherney challenged Lukon to “do something about that,” the superintendent asked the union to help her change a mistaken perception that she is unapproachable and hostile to dissenting views.

“Obviously, we have a problem here,” Cherney said, as evidenced by the number of absent teachers. “You clearly don’t have all the staff here.”

Cherney said the teacher attendance reflected mistrust. She added that it was Lukon’s responsibility to make the teachers feel comfortable.

“That’s a challenge for you to do,” she said.

“That goes two ways,” Lukon replied. She said the teachers who did attend the workshop could tell their colleagues her door is open. “All of you can say, ‘You can go and talk to her. She’s a reasonable person.’ I don’t bite, and I’m not the enemy. I – honest to God – cannot think I’m aware of any time I have done anything that makes people fearful about talking to me.”

Lukon also said that she doesn’t recall retaliating against any teacher who disagreed with her.

The parties will meet again at a faculty meeting April 1 to follow up on several proposals to improve communications. Among the other measures, the teachers and administrators discussed:

• Emailing staff a copy of the chain of command that was recently created by the school board and administration;

• Devoting a School Committee workshop to assessments;

• Adopting Lukon’s suggestion to improve communications and encourage teacher input by starting a committee with a teacher representing each grade;

• Adopting Mark Allard’s suggestion to hold an open forum after staff meetings (Allard is a social worker for the district);

• Implementing Lukon’s idea to send teachers a weekly update on the leadership team meeting.

Committee member B.J. Whitehouse said the issues between Lukon and the teachers boiled down to communications. After reviewing the union’s complaints against the Superintendent, School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser took much of the blame for misunderstandings and communication problems. Kaiser said the problem was largely due to the fact that the school board had not done enough to help teachers adapt when the district moved to a part-time superintendent.

Jamestown used to have a fulltime superintendent, who doubled as a principal, but according to Kaiser, the system was not working.

Ultimately, the School Committee decided to hire a part-time superintendent and two full-time principals.

According to Kaiser, under the new arrangement, the principals and other members of the leadership team are supposed to handle most of the issues that come up in the buildings. Lukon, who is at school only two days a week, deals with contract issues and with the state Department of Education, said Kaiser.

Most of the issues the teachers thought Lukon had failed to address were not supposed to go to the superintendent in the first place, Kaiser said. She went on to say she thought most of the problems could be resolved if everyone understood the chain of command and the channels of communication.

To illustrate the points, Kaiser and the School Committee laid out a giant organizational chart on the cafeteria floor. Principals Deb DiBiase and Carrie Melucci helped explain how the structure is supposed to work by taking neon green cards, labeled with issues the union had raised, and arranging the cards under the correct name on the organization chart.

For example, questions about teacher evaluations at Lawn Avenue School should go to DiBiase, the school’s principal. Questions about evaluations at Melrose should go to Melucci, and questions from teachers about specialeducation classes should go to Ken Duva, director of student services.

Several teachers complained the chart did not show any teachers or students. School Committee member Julia Held said that was only because the chart was designed to address the complaints the union had lodged against the superintendent. It was not intended to be a picture of the school district, she said.

The School Committee took responsibility for the decision to hire a part-time superintendent and two full-time principals, Held said, and added the taxpayers saved money by having a parttime superintendent.

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