‘Time for action is now’: Middletown unions call on school board to fix ‘toxic’ job climate

Photo of Cassandra Day
The Middletown Board of Education central office is located at 311 Hunting Hill Ave.

The Middletown Board of Education central office is located at 311 Hunting Hill Ave.

Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

MIDDLETOWN — The local union is calling on the Board of Education to address “serious concerns” surrounding “long-standing, toxic working conditions” at the city’s public schools.

Their request stems from the results of a five-month workplace harassment investigation, which examined alleged misconduct by top school district officials.

The investigation was prompted by more than a dozen union employees’ allegations of bullying, harassment and other reported workplace maltreatment against top central office leadership.

“As the school year comes to a close, we are asking for corrective measures to be put into place immediately,” Middletown Federation of Teachers President Janice Pawlak said at the last school board meeting.

Pawlak was joined by UPSEU Local 6457 President Ann Gregg, Middletown AFSCME Local 466 Vice President Brooke Carta, and Middletown Federation of Paraeducators President Cindy Culp.

The schools announced April 5 that the investigation, conducted by the board’s attorneys, Shipman and Goodwin, as well as an independent firm, Thompson Hine, was complete.

Union officials read a statement at the June Board of Education meeting, saying they’ve been successfully working with new Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos and are now imploring action from the panel.

Vazquez-Matos replaced Michael Conner, who resigned while on leave amid the investigation. Chief of Administration Christine Bourne and Chief of School Operations Marco Gaylord remain on leave.

“It has been eight months since this was brought to your attention, and yet, we haven’t seen substantive corrective action,” Pawlak said. “While we understand the investigatory process was long and multifaceted, the time for action is now.”

“The dedicated and hard-working professionals we represent deserve no less,” she added. “With staff shortages, a global pandemic, and recent nationwide school violence incidents weighing on the minds and hearts of our staff, it’s simply unfair to let these old wounds remain open.”

“Take action and put in the safety nets required to not only help the district staff heal, but ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,” Pawlak said.

The schools declined to comment on confidential personnel matters, Communications Director Jessie Lavorgna said Wednesday.

However, they are “committed to continuing to build cooperative and supportive relationships with each of the unions in the district,” she explained.

Work will begin in the new academic year, Lavorgna added, with an “increased focus on nurturing and sustaining the well-being of all students, teachers, staff and administrators.”

Actions requested

The union outlined seven suggested changes, including action in response to “substantiate” allegations against administrators, conduct a restorative circle with stakeholders, as well as establish a committee of BOE members, top school officials, union leaders, and employees to take up key workplace issues.

“Had such a committee been in place, we believe that the issues brought in our October complaint would have been addressed before causing such widespread harm,” Pawlak said. “The existing complaint process failed our employees. This committee could also be crucial to formulating and revising the district’s strategic operating plan.”

The unions would also like to see mental health support put in place for employees in need, a prioritization of filling open positions “to relieve the pressure due to the extreme staff shortages. Many critical vacancies exist in all levels of the organization,” Pawlak said.

She asked for a “robust,” public and transparent exit interview process. “This data is crucial to nip any potential problems in the bud.”

Communications, which Pawlak said, “typically go unanswered,” also “fuel the perception that ‘things will never change, nobody cares, and my opinion doesn’t matter’ we hear regularly from our members.”

She asked the board and administration to work with employees. “Only then can our staff provide the very best experience for our students and unlock the potential for all.”

The district understands that determining a path ahead is important, Lavorgna said.

“The board and administration recognize that healing is a necessary component to move the district forward,” she said.