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STOUGHTON

Teachers, school head still at odds

By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / October 28, 2010

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Stoughton teachers are continuing to blast a lengthy contract extension given to the district superintendent, a pact that binds the school chief to the system for the next 5 1/2 years.

By a ballot of 121-6 earlier this month, the Stoughton Teachers Union voted “no confidence’’ in the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Marguerite Rizzi. Union leaders deny the vote has anything to do with its own stalled contract talks.

The dispute has overshadowed recent news that 2010 MCAS scores at Stoughton High had soared, with the high school jumping 34 places in statewide rankings from 174th of 348 schools to 140th. The number of students failing the test had dropped sharply, with only two failing English and one flunking math, after 16 students failed in 2009.

The School Committee voted Sept. 28 to extend Rizzi’s contract for four years through June 2016. But questions have since been raised about the legality of the 3-to-1 vote taken in closed session. A town resident complained to the School Committee that the vote violated the state’s Open Meeting Law, and on Oct. 12, the committee considered revoting on the contract in open session in a bid to resolve the complaint, but deadlocked, 2 to 2, essentially letting the previous vote stand.

Jill Butterworth, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office, which administers the law, said Monday that the complaint was still being addressed on the local level and that the state was not yet involved.

At the Oct. 12 School Committee meeting, Susan Cogliano, president of the Stoughton Teachers Association, read a statement about the union’s vote of no confidence, taking pains to say the action had nothing to do with its ongoing contract negotiations.

“The vote of no confidence means that we do not believe that Dr. Rizzi has the ability or willingness to make the changes necessary to become an effective leader,’’ Cogliano said while asking the committee to reconsider its decision to extend the superintendent’s contract.

She said union members believe Rizzi has made decisions not in the interest of students, and has led through fear, intimidation, and retaliation. She said the union has filed 10 grievances and four unfair labor practice complaints since Rizzi took over.

Contacted recently, Cogliano said she stands by the statement she made on Oct. 12.

Rizzi has struck a conciliatory tone in her public statements since the vote by the union, although she and the union disagree on the number of grievances and complaints, which have yet to be resolved.

“I work every day in the interest of the teachers, and will continue to do so,’’ she said in a recent interview. “I hope that as time goes on and the contract issues are resolved, the union and the administration can work on many of the things that we have in common, including ensuring adequate funding, a highly competitive salary schedule so that we can recruit and retain the best teachers, and better outcomes for all students.’’

Rizzi has been publicly supported by parents and school officials, such as former superintendent Anthony Sarno. She put together a budget for this school year that included no layoffs of teachers, but to do so had to make some unpopular cuts, including stipends for teachers, and cuts to the high school athletic budget.

School Committee chairman Thomas Colburn said his panel took the teachers’ vote seriously, but the majority believed Rizzi deserved the extension. “You never like to hear about a vote of no confidence in any of your employees,’’ he said. “It’s not something you can take lightly.’’

He said the recent MCAS scores weren’t the primary reason a contract extension was offered, but a factor. “They were a feather in her cap,’’ he said. “The scores not only had to do with teachers from last year, but teachers in the years before that, and improvements in areas such as curriculum.’’

Both he and Rizzi credited teachers for raising MCAS scores.

“I am delighted that the ongoing work that teachers and principals have been doing is resulting in improved scores,’’ said Rizzi. “Their assessment of the needs and how to address them is clearly on the right track.’’

Colburn cited a need for stability when he, along with School Committee members Joyce Husseini and Deborah Sovinee, first voted to extend Rizzi’s pact over the objections of member Erdem Ural. At the Oct. 12 meeting, Ural and Colburn voted to reconsider the earlier vote, while Husseini and Sovinee voted no. Member Allan Mills recused himself on both occasions because his wife is employed by the district.

When Rizzi was hired, in July 2009, she became the district’s third superintendent in 19 months, replacing Sarno, the former superintendent who had returned to the job after Claire McCarthy departed in December 2007.

Rizzi, originally hired as a deputy superintendent in January 2008, is currently working under the terms of her original three-year agreement, which pays her $140,000 a year. The committee has not negotiated her salary for the extension.

Colburn said he believes that the district’s financial difficulties have played a role in the tensions between the teachers union and Rizzi and that both sides have to work harder to resolve their differences.

“When there are financial difficulties, everything gets magnified, and stress increases,’’ he said. “Having said that, you can’t explain away or dismiss issues out of hand that arise during those tough times. We need to work more closely together.’’

Rich Fahey can be reached at faheywrite@yahoo.com.

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