The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education held a public discussion on Monday night concerning a one-day suspension of Tuscan School Principal Malikah Majeed — at Majeed’s request.
Ultimately, the BOE voted 7-2 to penalize Majeed for what Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra deemed insubordination. Majeed’s salary for next year will be held at 2018-19 rates via approval of a resolution with the subject line “Withhold Salary Increment” (see resolution 3647 below).
Majeed had been notified that the Board would be discussing her suspension in closed session and she chose to have that discussion made public, according to district counsel Joanne Butler, despite the fact that she did not get to participate in the discussion. However, Butler said that nothing precluded Majeed from making comments during public comments. Butler said that the discussion did differ from a Donaldson hearing in that, in those instances, non-tenured employees can participate and advocate on their own behalf. (Majeed is tenured.)
Once the discussion began, Ficarra recounted an incident of what he called insubordination on Majeed’s part when she refused to participate in a phone call in which principals were given new protocols for an emergency weather situation on January 30. Ficarra reported that Majeed told him, “I’m busy releasing students…. It’s an inappropriate time for conversation. … I have my own procedures.”
Ficarra characterized Majeed’s approach as one of “rudeness” and “insubordination.”
Ficarra said that other senior staff (Gayle Carrick, Joanne Butler, Paul Roth, Keith Bonds and Suzanne Turner were present) who were in the conference room when Ficarra spoke with Majeed via conference call agreed with his assessment. Butler noted, “It’s an accurate reflection, and he has my notes.” Paul Roth, the district business administrator, said, “It was a combative phone call, not cooperative.”
Ficarra said that the issue was of great importance as parents were asking that their children be released to people who were not on their approved pickup list — after the district had given parents the option to pick up children early due to the sudden prediction of a dismissal-time snow squall. Ficarra stressed that the district wanted to allow parents the option to pick up students early following on the events of November 15, when some young students were trapped on buses for hours. He noted that, since the storm was only predicted once students were already in school, the district’s options were limited and not ideal. By trying to avoid releasing students into a storm, the district was faced with a new quandary.
“How do we ensure that we are not unwittingly participating in an accidental abduction?” asked Ficarra, who said that the staff developed a procedure: Parents would forward back to principals the email notification regarding the snow squall and on it indicate the name of child, their name, and the name of the person to pick up child. Staff could then verify the parent’s approval by checking the email address to verify.
All the principals but two participated in the initial call. Of the two who were not on it, one quickly was located and apologized for missing the call. However this was not the case with Majeed, whom Ficarra said seemed to be “goading” him into an argument and “flatly refusing to follow the directive.”
“This was insubordination,” said Ficarra, and “in the middle of a health and safety emergency.”
“As chief school administrator, I have the ultimate responsibility to follow the law and make sure that principals are following procedures,” said Ficarra. “Releasing students to unauthorized people was dangerous. … We cannot wait before a child is hurt before deciding a principal needs to listen to instructions for dismissal.” Ficarra noted that there is a “clear chain of command” in the NJ administrative code, in the law and in the Board of Education organizational chart.
“I strongly recommend that this action has an appropriate consequence for insubordination,” Ficarra told the Board of Education. “There is case law requiring administrative oversight at these times. The super cannot be dismissed by the principal in an emergency.”
Board of Education member Johanna Wright balked at the withholding of salary increment. But Ficarra said he believed “it is of utmost importance to have consequence to an action that could endanger children.” Ficarra also said this was, “Step one in an insubordination case.”
“I think it’s a bit heavy handed,” said Wright.
BOE President Annemarie Maini replied to Wright, “I do disagree. As the administrator of a preschool I’m maybe more sensitive to strict protocols as to who is picking up children.” Maini also noted that, when she worked in the “corporate world, I made myself available to my boss.” Maini made a reference to “prior misbehavior in our district,” and said, “it has to stop somewhere.”
BOE member Robin Baker asked if Majeed acknowledged the error or apologized. Ficarra indicated that she had not.
After the vote to withhold increment (only Wright and Javier Farfan voted against), Maplewood resident Erin Scherzer took the the microphone during public speaks to take Ficarra to task.
Noting that there were 76 days between the storm on November 15 and the date of the squall — January 30 — Scherzer said, “As a parent, I’m incredibly disappointed that the superintendent shared that there is not a plan in place for a snow squall.” Saying there should be “ownership from the top,” Scherzer bemoaned the fact that an employee in the district had a “demerit on her record” for something that Scherzer said “was the superintendent’s responsibility.” Scherzer said she was also worried about “tone policing” in the district. Finally, she said that parents were not given instructions on emailing the district.
South Orange Middle School Principal Lynn Irby then stood before the Board and spoke angrily on Majeed’s behalf. Saying she was “very disappointed” in what had happened to her colleague — and noting that she was taking a risk in speaking up as she is non-tenured — Irby said, “No-one told us that it was a mandatory emergency protocol.” Irby recounted having “well over 75 parents in the office” — many of whom said they didn’t receive the email. “We were trying to check emails. You check ID; I was not releasing them just for that email.” Irby also said that, due to lack of communication from the central office, SOMS also “released kids in the middle of the squall. That person who was hit by the car could’ve been one of our kids. … The protocol was not completely clear, nor was it set.”
Ficarra responded that he “specifically made it clear” to principals to call him. “Seth Boyden called and held the students” until the squall had passed, said Ficarra.