There are two possibilities for the South Orange Middle School teachers who were not rehired, explained Superintendent Brian Osborne and SOMS principal Joseph Uglialoro in two Monday meetings. The teachers can request, or the superintendent can present a resolution to rehire to the Board of Education members. In his five years in the district, Osborne has never before taken such an action, he said. He also acknowledged that Donaldson hearings are not generally successful for the teacher.
More than one hundred parents and students attended , some 40 parents in the morning, and more than 75 parents and students in the evening. Two Board of Education members were present in the morning, and the remaining seven members attended the evening meeting. Each meeting lasted more than two hours, as parents pressed both administrators for answers, specifically on the role of parent and community input in making – or reconsidering – the . While Uglialoro explained that he considers rehiring decisions “thoughtfully,” and he “anticipated some level of reaction,” the community outpouring of support for the teachers was unanticipated, he said.
Both administrators acknowledged that they are aware of the community reaction. However, said Osborne, “passion does not lessen what came before,” as he explained the process towards tenure in New Jersey.
While the conversation covered how teachers are evaluated and outlined the process for appeals, the meetings were notable for lack of specifics.
“The district is muzzled by the confidentiality law,” Osborne said, later reiterating, “We can not divulge our rationale to you.”
The lack of specifics is frustrating for parents and middle school students who have petitioned, written letters, and protested the non-renewal of contracts for Steven Cohen and Kathleen McCort, teachers who they credit for turning students on to social studies and preparing them for the rigors of high school history, where a record number of ninth-grade students, many their former students, have been selected for advanced placement in U.S. History.
In addition, students present at the Monday evening meeting told Patch that they credit Cohen’s “rigor” last year with allowing them to sit for the AP World History test this year – this, despite not being enrolled in an AP class.
It’s possible that more information could come to light if the teachers request the superintendent’s written statement for reasons for the non-renewal, which is the first step in the appeals process. The superintendent said he could not comment on whether such a request has been made, and while it is widely believed by parents that the teachers have appealed, that has not been confirmed.
But even if the teachers share the superintendent's statement with the public, it is unlikely to satisfy the demand for full disclosure on how the teachers were rated on an evaluation rubric that relies, in part, on classroom observation that rates specific performance standards for effective teaching.
Not everything that goes into making the decision would be included in the superintendent’s statement. Osborne described such statements as “pithy” and “not an exhaustive explanation.”
The outcry from the community over the non-renewals is particularly strong given the popularity of the teachers who were evaluated by a first-year principal. Joseph Uglialoro stepped in at a critical juncture as the district adopted plans to de-level academic classes and begins an international baccalaureate program. Many parents asked about the weight given to evaluations done under the previous school principal. Cohen, noted one parent, served as a long-term substitute in the district before being hired for his current position.
The principal, Osborne said, “has my unequivocal support.”
some large and some small, Uglialoro said on Monday morning. “All those changes have brought different levels of stress to the community.”
In the evening meeting, Uglialoro expressed his wish to “move forward” from the controversy, but parents and students seemed unready to do so. As recently as Monday morning, the doors of the Administration building on Academy Street were plastered with flyers supporting the teachers and copies of student detention slips. Many SOMS students will be serving detention on Saturday after skipping classes due to a cafeteria sit-in and a walkout.
Questions raised by parents included the role of community feedback in considering teachers for rehire. Letters that parents write about teachers become part of the school file, not the personnel file maintained at the district level, explained Osborne. The same is true for communications with Board of Education members, which Board member Lynne Crawford assured the public are read and considered. However, noted Osborne, parent feedback becomes part of the “full picture” considered for rehire.
A parent asked about “damage control,” and what next steps are in place for SOMS. Uglialoro said that he has been meeting with groups of “stakeholders,” including small groups of teachers, the parent meetings on Monday, and planned meetings with students during their advisory periods.
As to what happens next, no one knows. Students at the meeting Monday reiterated their commitment to the cause. Said one eighth grader as the meeting closed, "We are like Dumbledore's Army."
This story includes coverage from Laura Griffin, Marilyn Lehren, Carolyn Maynard-Parisi, Jennifer Murray, and Marcia Worth. Patch will continue to update.