Representatives for and members of the Saucon Valley Education Association–which represents the district’s teachers–attended Tuesday night’s school board meeting, where they voiced concerns about what SVEA President Robert Kachmar called a lack of transparency and consistency in terms of how teacher transfers are voted on by the board.
Kachmar twice asked the board to make a specific pending teacher transfer an agenda item “in order to be fully transparent…so that the board can vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on it.”
“The item is the transfer of Mrs. Vivian Demko from the K-12 language arts academic coach position to the position of third grade classroom teacher,” Kachmar said, adding that “in the past, transfer of positions but not grade levels have been voted on by the school board.”
Demko is a former Saucon Valley Education Association president.
The board’s solicitor, attorney Mark Fitzgerald, disagreed with Kachmar’s assertion that the vote on Demko’s transfer should be taken publicly and said the school board is “quite transparent.”
“There are requirements under the School Code, and that is not one of them,” he said of public votes on teacher transfers.
“I would suggest that this question come through the mechanism of a joint labor management discussion on this issue,” Fitzgerald said, speaking on behalf of the board. “There’s nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that requires a public vote on a transfer. It’s a prerogative that is generally vested with management, which is the administration.”
School board superintendent Dr. Craig Butler also asked why the union was questioning the lack of a public vote on the matter of Demko’s transfer.
“Mr. Kachmar, I did look at board policy on this, and according to what I read and I could have missed something, the superintendent has the right to assignment,” Butler said.
“It’s unusual then that they would have done this in the past,” Kachmar responded. “That’s my question.”
Kachmar later said he disputed the characterization by Fitzgerald of the issue at hand as labor dispute.
“We’re not disputing it from a labor standpoint,” he said. “We’re disputing it from the standpoint of how it’s affecting the children. … We’re not fighting the internal transfer per se.”
Fitzgerald, however, disagreed with Kachmar’s assessment of the matter.
“You are representing an organization here that addresses the conditions of employment for your members. You are in that vein advocating for the children but it’s within your purview as president of the association,” he said. “It is a labor discussion that you are having.”
“If a taxpayer of the district addresses it, it should be fine,” Kachmar said.
And in fact, a district taxpayer and parent did criticize Demko’s pending transfer, which she said would affect her daughter’s education and called the reason why “you have kids at home crying.”
“We got an email about our daughter’s teacher being moved, yesterday,” said Lower Saucon resident Nicole Spirk. “She’s not going to have her anymore as of Monday. Now I want you to think about that in a 7-year-old’s perspective…because ultimately you’re all here because you want to do the right thing for the kids. This is not the right thing for these kids. Ms. Demko has done an amazing job with these kids.”
“This is actually the second time this is happening to my child, by the way,” she continued. “Last year her teacher in this position was removed, suddenly, replaced with Ms. Demko, and I am very glad that we ended up with Ms. Demko. She is amazing. … I’m concerned.”
“I attempted to hire a temporary replacement for this position, what we call a long-term sub, and unfortunately that option was taken away from me,” Butler said once Spirk finished speaking. “That would have been my preference, ma’am.”
Butler said he originally wanted to fill the position on a temporary basis while he reassessed personnel needs across the district and in order to generate the best pool of candidates possible.
Spirk said “condensing the classes now” could be a move that comes at the expense of the children currently enrolled in them.
“I’m convinced…that no children are being compromised or sacrificed as a result of this move,” Butler said.
Another district resident voiced concerns similar to those of Kachmar regarding the board.
Lower Saucon resident Robert Phillips, who is a former school board candidate, accused the board of “hiding behind” its solicitor.
Phillips said the board appeared content to stay inside its “echo chamber for what you wanted to hear, rather than being open to outside positions, which you’ve been open to in the past.”
“It also strikes me as odd that earlier in the evening you talk about wanting to welcome back cyber-schooled students–you talk about wanting to make this a place of excellence that people would choose to come to–and yet you allow a small budget decision to have your actions say exactly the opposite of what your words were,” he said.
“I just want to say that this is not a board decision, this is an administrative decision, and that’s what I don’t think everybody in the room understands,” school board president Susan Baxter said.
Butler also stressed that the decision to transfer Demko was his decision.
“Dr. Butler’s made it clear that it’s his decision. But you’re his boss and that’s been made clear,” Kachmar said. “And so we’re asking you to hear us out so that you can fully understand the decision that’s being made.”
“We’re disappointed,” Baxter responded. “The teachers are coming to the board and asking us to undermine the superintendent. I’m going to ask the teachers to support the superintendent.”
“That’s his job. It’s his job to determine what the best placement is,” she continued. “We don’t get involved in those internal decisions…. It’s important for labor and administration to work together, and try to bring it out publicly and turn it into some big press item.”
Board member Shamim Pakzad broke with Baxter on the issue and said he wouldn’t mind hearing the teachers out. Board member Cedric Dettmar agreed, saying “this has been discussed so much we might as well hear the rest of the story.”
Butler then lamented the fact that he had so little flexibility, saying “with the options at my disposal, because we would not be sitting here tonight if that option was available to me, I firmly believe.”
What that option was, was to hire a long-term substitute, he later said, and had he been permitted to fill the position with one “this situation would have been solved weeks ago.”
Late in the discussion, Kachmar returned to the podium and read a SVEA statement that helped clarify the association’s grievances:
Absent from the agenda tonight are the staff movements taking place at the elementary school next week. There is a lack of transparency about this move as it means that a teaching position is not being filled on purpose without informing the public. Since the board votes on spending money it’s curious that the board wouldn’t have to vote on not spending budgeted money as well. In case you didn’t know, because this isn’t noted anywhere, Mrs. Vivian Demko is being transferred into a position being vacated by current third grade teacher Ms. Heidi Mullen. There are more positions that are also being shuffled that aren’t indicated by this. Mr. Matt Evancho is being transferred to cover the first grade gifted instruction. Mrs. Laura McCarthy is being transferred to second grade gifted instrution. Other teachers will also be transferred to pick up reading instruction currently provided by Mrs. Demko, and no one is picking up the work that Mrs. Demko does for behavior support. If you choose to take no action tonight, you are choosing to support the transfers, and we want to make sure that you have a clearer picture on how your inaction will have a detrimental affect on students. No action on moving Mrs. Demko into this position is a vote to both disrupt and decrease services to our students with the highest needs as well as our gifted students. To be clear, here’s the impact: If you choose to take no action and support the transfer, all first grade students with GIEPs (Gifted Individualized Education Plans) will lose continuity of instruction. If you choose to take no action and support the transfer, all second grade students with GIAPs will lose continuity of instruction. If you choose to take no action and support the transfer, all students who receive Orton-Gillingham reading instruction will have their instruction diluted and diminished, depending upon the district’s final plan for backfilling the loss of the instructor. If you choose to take not action and support the transfer, all elementary students are losing a behavioral support specialist that the students have come to rely upon. Enrollment numbers for the elementary school both now and next year support the hiring for Mrs. Mullen’s position now, and so there’s no reason to wait. As far as allowing for a long-term substitute in this position, because it’s a contracted position, and there is no person that it’s being substituted for, it doesn’t fulfill the definition of what a substitute is. And so no one is asking you to spend a single extra dollar of taxpayer money. It’s already been budgeted for this year. We’re asking you to direct the administration to hire for the position that’s being vacated. Thank you for allowing me to speak.
“We’re not going to bargain a personnel issue right now,” Fitzgerald said.
“I wish that it had would have been brought up at the A&P committee earlier. We’ve known about it since Jan. 3,” Kachmar said. “I wish that it would have been able to have not taken place in this forum, but because the person is leaving this Friday, that’s why we’re here.”
Fitzgerald went on to explain why the issue of filling the position being vacated by Mullen was being complicated by the timing of her departure.
“The law generally states that if it’s an open (tenured) position you have to fill it permanently. Well, you’re in the middle of the winter. A lot of your best candidates aren’t going to be around or available until we get towards the latter part of the school year when there’s a lot of fluidity in terms of filling positions,” he said. “So you’re left with a potential option of a long-term sub. But there are limits to that, and I believe that is what was being discussed between Bob and Dr. Butler. So it’s complicated how positions can be filled when there’s this sudden opening, even if it’s 60 days…mid-year.”
In essence, he said, the administration has few options at this time of year because of “Pennsylvania’s convoluted personnel laws.”
Responding to a parent of two children who said they will be affected by Demko’s departure, and who asked what parents can do to help provide the administration with more options, Fitzgerald said, “change the law.”
Board member Tracy Magnotta was absent from the meeting.
School board meetings are normally held the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. in the Saucon Valley High School Audion room.
Meetings can be watched live online and later for a limited time on YouTube by visiting the school board page on the school district website.