ROXBURY, NJ – Roxbury High School Principal Jeffrey Swanson said he did not encourage teachers to boycott Back to School Night this week, rebutting an assertion made by a teachers’ union representative.
On Wednesday, Swanson used the school district’s “Honeywell” parental alert system to announce he was postponing the Thursday evening Back to School Night. He told parents he did so after learning that many teachers were planning to not show up.
The teachers are locked in a contract dispute with the Roxbury Board of Education.
In an interview Wednesday night, John Williams, a field representative for the teachers’ union, said Swanson, also working under an expired contract, had suggested teachers might boycott Back to School night as a show of solidarity.
But in a Friday letter to TAP into Roxbury, Swanson forcefully denied doing this.
“At no time did I address the staff at the high school and cajole, encourage, request or demand that they not attend Back to School Night,” he wrote. “Does Mr. Williams (or for that matter, do you) think that I have such control over the staff at the high school that I could command them to take an action that was contrary to their own association's position, and that they would comply? It would be interesting to possess that power, but let me assure you that I do not.”
Contacted Friday, Williams stood by his assertion. He said the principal, at a faculty meeting, “brought this topic up (boycotting Back to School Night) in the context of a comment in relation to contract negotiations.”
Williams, who was not at the meeting, said his information came from a teacher who was there. Williams said he spoke with the teacher again on Friday and was assured he had his story right. Williams would not reveal the name of the teacher or provide contact information.
"Regardless of what the teachers said they were/are going to do; such as to attend Back to School Night or not, it is the administration that makes the decision to cancel or postpone the event ... Staff does not make those decisions," Williams wrote in an email. "It remains the position of the REA that members attend back to school nights, as evidenced by the first (one) at Nixon School."
In his letter, Swanson went on to assert that Williams “was doing damage control for his unit by casting aspersions” and insisted he - upon learning most of his staff planned to stay home and not go to Back to School night - “had no choice but to postpone it with the hope that a speedy resolution of the contract dispute would allow me to reschedule the program for later in the month.”
Such a resolution is not likely to happen this month. A Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) factfinder is scheduled to conduct a hearing on the Roxbury situation Oct. 6. A non-binding recommendation will be written by the factfinder.
The principal went on to say he is not at odds with the Roxbury Education Association (REA) teachers’ union.
“If I had been asked, I would have told you that I am sympathetic to the REA's contract situation, for a number of reasons,” said Swanson. “First and foremost, unresolved contract negotiations inevitably impact the morale of the staff, and ultimately the climate of the school. There is a palpable difference in the way that the school operates in these circumstances. When this occurs, eventually it is the students who are impacted. That is unacceptable.”
He also said he understands why the staff would not want to show up for Back to School Night and that he feels “a degree of kinship with the staff” because he and his fellow administrators are “in a similar situation.”
The administrators are also working under an expired contract.
Swanson, in his letter, suggested administrators tend to take a higher road than the one chosen by teachers during contract disputes. “In the past, when contractual disputes have occurred, the administrators have been the ones to step up to minimize the impact on students,” said Swanson. “Will this be the expectation once again?”
Williams took issue with that characterization. “He’s entitled to his opinion,” he said. “But I think it’s actually the teachers who’ve minimized the impact on students.There are hundreds of classroom teachers. There are a handful of administrators.”