When Truth Matters – New Jersey Education Association

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Lopatcong EA breaks the cycle of administrative abuse standing up and speaking

By Christy Kanaby

“In an age of deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Although they didn’t mean those words at the time, often attributed to George Orwell, it was the commitment to telling the truth that sparked a revolution in the Lopatcong Education Association (LEA), a local of 90 Warren County members. For years, these educators and educational support professionals (ESPs) endured the egregious behavior of their district superintendent until they bravely broke their silence last fall.

Since the arrival of Dr. Debra Mercora in 2019, LEA members have faced a hostile work environment due to her countless well-documented unprofessional actions.

His behavior caused dissension and instability among district employees and contributed to dramatic staff turnover, including administrators.

In fact, in recent years, a significant number of teachers and other staff, including administrators, have voluntarily left the school district for other jobs or retired early. This, coupled with the myriad of challenges educators continue to face as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, has brought many LEA members to their breaking point and motivated them to organize. .

“Our schools, students, and staff deserve to be part of a district that follows best practices, adheres to the laws and statutes governing our public schools, creates an atmosphere of dignity and respect, and upholds the most fundamental principles of education. of character. They also deserve a school board and superintendent who shares those feelings,” said LEA President Sonnie Hall, who along with LEA Vice President Amy Harmon bravely led her members to protect their schools and their coworkers. “We have refused to sit idly by and watch our students’ educational experience continue to be eroded or compromised in any way. We were determined to break the cycle of bad behavior and send a clear signal that it will no longer be tolerated.

In conjunction with NJEA Field Representative John Ropars, NJEA Network Attorney Sanford Oxfeld, Esq., and NJEA Associate Director of Public Relations Christy Kanaby, the LEA first shared of his concerns to the Lopatcong Board of Education Liaison Council in September.

During these discussions, the LEA has attempted to provide countless examples of instances where Mercora has routinely engaged in disrespectful behavior towards current and former staff and humiliated and belittled employees – in front of other staff. , students and parents – and retaliated against those who questioned her or exercised their rights under the law. Council members refused to listen and ended the conversation.

breaking their silence

Unwilling to tolerate the mistreatment any longer, the LEA took its concerns directly to the community, issuing an open letter that detailed the problems within the district – the same issues reported to the Lopatcong Council Liaison Council months before. In response, the board issued its own public statement, saying it was unaware of the issues and accusing the LEA of lying and committing “defamation”.

“It’s shameful to hear the board blame those who fell victim to our superintendent’s lack of leadership instead of acknowledging their role with a blind eye,” Hall said. “It only strengthens our resolve to demand that we get back to basics of integrity and respect and end this unacceptable behavior, once and for all.”

Hall wasn’t the only one upset. Outraged by the board’s response, LEA members rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Networking with several parents and NJEA members who lived in the community, the LEA – and hundreds of their county and state supporters – converged at the December 14 Board of Education meeting to demand accounts and make changes.

Sonnie Hall (right), president of the Lopatcong Education Association (LEA), and Amy Harman, vice president of the LEA, at the February 8 education council meeting.

With courage and conviction

At the meeting, more than 200 association members, parents, the public and other teacher and staff advocates were on hand to voice their concerns. Strengthened by the support they received, member after member took the stage to tell their horror stories of their experience with Mercora. Some people were in tears as they shared their stories, with one educator movingly recounting Mercora’s callousness when the member returned to work after burying his daughter.

“I was so impressed and so proud of these leaders and members,” Ropars said. “It takes a lot of courage for a member to stand up in front of the board and the public and tell their story. But one after another they did and drew strength from each other.

Additionally, the LEA provided evidence that Mercora had a pattern of this type of behavior in his previous position. Members cited numerous news articles and Neptune City School Board meeting minutes that described the same issues. This behavior at Neptune led Mercora to tender his resignation just five months after signing a new five-year contract. Several Neptune City educators corroborated these claims, having traveled to Lopatcong that evening to stand alongside members of the LEA.

The association then demanded that the board hire an outside investigator to investigate the allegations in accordance with its own board’s policy. The board promised to investigate the matter, but several weeks passed with no resolution, or even investigation, in sight.

After the holidays, LEA members and community residents began displaying lawn signs, banners, bumper magnets and T-shirts, all emblazoned with the words “Truth Matters.” Social media was awash with LEA supporters, and the district’s January school board meeting had standing room only. It soon became apparent that the board knew he had a problem, and they contacted the LEA to ask for time to fix the problem internally.

The dawn of a new day

The LEA kept up the pressure, and at its February 8 meeting, the board announced that it had hired an acting superintendent while a separation agreement was being negotiated to officially release Dr. Mercora from Lopatcong. Hall took the opportunity to commend the council for heeding the community’s call to action.

“While it is unfortunate that it has taken so much time, anguish and upheaval, I am happy to see that we have been heard … I am happy that we can finally right the proverbial wrongs,” Hall told the advice. “While we know that some wounds take longer to heal than others, we also know that validating our concerns and acknowledging the truth puts us on the right track.”

Ropars praised the members of the LEA for their courage and tenacity in speaking their truth throughout the ordeal. As a seasoned NJEA staff member for 22 years, with over 45 years of experience as a union representative, he has seen his share of bad administrators and the detrimental effect they have on school employees. communities and the students they serve.

“Too often, school workers feel powerless to fight against administrative abuse, like what happened in Lopatcong.” Ropars said. “But to the credit of local leaders and their members, and their allies in the community, they organized and implemented plans to draw attention to the abusive behavior – and they succeeded. They just needed someone to steer them in the right direction and shine a light on the essential resources the NJEA can provide to its affiliates.

Hall echoed Ropars’ sentiment, citing the collective power union members can harness to get through tough times.

“Thanks to my union brothers and sisters, as well as the community members and parents who have supported us, we have made a difference,” Hall concluded. “It’s a new day for Lopatcong; one full of promise and healing.

Christy Kanaby is Associate Director in the NJEA’s Communications Division. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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