Fall 2015 Issue
October 06, 2015

Dutchess community union face down a bully and save a librarian

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Members of the Carmel TA and Dover’s unionized highway department join Dover-Wingdale TA members and Dover parents in supporting embattled librarian and union leader Patrick Stevens.
Caption: Members of the Carmel TA and Dover's unionized highway department join DoverWingdale TA members and Dover parents in supporting embattled librarian and union leader Patrick Stevens. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

After battling for more than two years for a reasonable contract, the Dover Wingdale Teachers Association thought the contentious fight was finally over.

In March 2015, the local won a fair settlement, vowed to move forward to repair broken relations and worked closely with the district to pass a 2015-16 school budget in a community that was one of only 12 in the state to defeat its spending plan last year.

But the day after the successful 2015-16 school budget vote, the superintendent began a vicious campaign of retribution and set in motion a series of "Black Wednesday" transfers and layoffs that made no educational sense. His targets? Teachers who participated in negotiations, joined in protected, concerted activities or participated in a grievance, union leaders said.

After overwhelmingly approving what was believed to be a fully funded school budget, the community was stunned when Dover Superintendent Michael Tierney suddenly proposed the staff changes, including the layoff of elementary librarian Patrick Stevens. Stevens is the union's executive vice president and led the union's most strident actions to settle the contract.

At first Tierney tried to get rid of Stevens by eliminating the middle school/high school librarian position, a plan that would bump a more senior librarian to the elementary level. But the union and community members did a little research and informed him that State Education Law requires a librarian at the secondary level. Undeterred, Tierney simply issued the layoff notice directly to Stevens.

Again, the union and parents pushed back vehemently. When parent Kim Brophy asked Tierney how elementary students would learn how to do research, the superintendent lifted up his smartphone and told her they could "Google it."

"That ridiculous answer really said it all," Brophy said — and became a rallying call for educators and community members alike.

The superintendent's snarky "Google it" remark aside, Brophy said the community was eager to rally around Stevens because he had built such a strong relationship with students and parents.

"He not only is a wonderful librarian who instills a love of books and learning," Brophy said, "he also knows everyone's name, always asks about siblings and really cares." Hundreds of community members signed the "Save Mr. Stevens" petition and a community Facebook page drummed up more support.

Educators pushed back on numerous other issues, such as Tierney's plans to transfer veteran teachers to teach new grades and reassign special education teachers to cafeteria duty (instead of having team planning time or sessions with students).

In a tremendous show of unity, more than 400 educators, community members, parents, students and union colleagues from around the mid-Hudson region joined informational picketing at a school board meeting in late June, calling for an end to the superintendent's bullying and harassment of educators. Supporters included a big contingent from Carmel Teachers Association and union brothers from the town highway department.

Many protesters carried signs on behalf of the targeted librarian. "How do you spell retaliation?" one sign read. "Google it!"

"Libraries need Librarians!" said another. Parents wore Tshirts that said: "Save Mr. Stevens" and "Don't close the book on Mr. Stevens."

One community member carried a sign with a heartfelt quote: "It is an awfully sad misconception that librarians simply check books in and out. The library is the heart of a school. And without a librarian, it is but an empty shell."

Following about 30 minutes of silent picketing, much of the crowd went into the school board meeting. They waited more than an hour for a tightly controlled public comment period after the board left the auditorium for an executive session to discuss "personnel issues."

Mary Ellen Brown, a well-respected retiring teacher who was honored for her 28 years of service, spoke on behalf of the 122member Dover Wingdale TA: "We teach our students not to engage in bullying and intimidation. We teach our children to stand up for themselves and speak out when they see injustice," she said. "We are here tonight to model just that. We implore the board of education to be educational leaders and to make decisions that are based on what is in the best interests of the children of our community — rather than decisions based on retribution."

The board also heard from a long line of parents, community members and a student, who spoke about poor educational decisions, a lack of trust and a climate of fear. "I voted on a budget that did not include any cuts," said parent Doug Schroeder. "I've lost faith and trust in the board and superintendent ... and that is why so many parents are here."

The superintendent made a brief statement, calling NYSUT's notice of claim for a union animus charge with the state Public Employment Relations Board "meritless accusations." He said his recommendations were intended to improve literacy and standardized test scores that made the State Education Department deem Dover a "focus" district.

But just two weeks after the unity rally, the board did an aboutface and voted to rescind Stevens' layoff notice. They also rejected other educationally unsound recommendations, such as reassigning special education teachers to cafeteria duty.

"That unity rally sent a very powerful message, that we weren't alone," said union president Michael O'Roark. "I'm convinced that's what got the board's attention — and helped us stop the bully in his tracks. He may have thought his actions would dissolve the union, but he just made us stronger."

Both O'Roark and Stevens said Dover's inspiring experience shows what can happen when educators and the community join together to take back control of their schools. It also shows the importance of engaging members in their union. The DWTA's contentious contract struggles galvanized the membership and brought them together as a community.

"It was really very humbling how the entire community responded — and literally saved my job," Stevens said. "It shows why we need a union and the power of standing together."