Labor board to hold hearing over Amherst teachers union allegations of school board retaliation against 2 members


Staff Writer

Published: 01-27-2023 9:40 PM

AMHERST — Complaints brought by the teachers union alleging that the Amherst School Committee unlawfully retaliated against two school employees for protected union activity will be subject to a hearing after a state Department of Labor Relations investigation found a probable cause that violations occurred.

“We are not surprised that state authorities decided to move forward after its investigation because this is a clear unlawful action,” Lamikco Magee, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, said in a statement issued last Friday.

The complaint filed with the Labor Relations Board in 2021 contended there was retaliation against two employees at Fort River School after they raised concerns about the effectiveness of COVID-19 protocols between August and October 2021, and clashed with a former principal.

One employee was subject to a transfer to another school building before resigning, while the other was placed on leave.

An October 2022 report by Carey D. Shockey, the Department of Labor Relations investigator, elaborates on allowing the complaint related to two employees to proceed, despite a January 2022 appeal from Marc Terry, the Westborough lawyer representing the committee, asking for the allegations to be dismissed in their entirety due to lack of probable cause.

The complaint centers on Nyanyika Banda, a substitute at Fort River, and Lani Blechman, a librarian at the same school, and their interactions with Michelle Hernandez, the new principal at the school in August 2021 who resigned two months later.

The union complaint states that on Aug. 26, 2021, Banda “expressed concerns regarding COVID-19 protocol for the upcoming school year” and the following day the Amherst School Committee informed Banda that she was being transferred to another school. At a subsequent meeting with Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and human resources, Banda was informed of a possible reinstatement, but that the School Committee would require her sending an all-staff email apology and making an in-person apology during a staff meeting.

Banda, though, ended up resigning on Sept. 3, 2021.

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The union states that this “interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees in the exercise of their rights.”

Terry, in his response, states that during orientation on Aug. 26, 2021, after Hernandez introduced herself as new principal and discussed pursuing a career in education after working as a police officer, Banda “rudely and loudly began questioning Ms. Hernandez in front of all staff members. Specifically, Ms. Banda interrupted Ms. Hernandez by yelling ‘it’s different here’ and ‘are you even from here?’ Ms. Banda further told Ms. Hernandez that she ‘is not the voice of Latinos’ and does not represent Latinos.”

When Banda expressed discomfort at working at the school on Sept. 1, 2021, Cunningham offered to reassign Banda, but instead she elected to resign, Terry wrote.

Pandemic protocols

The union complaint states that on Oct. 11, 2021, Blechman sent an all-staff email asking for stricter pandemic protocols and publicly criticized the leadership of Hernandez, and created a group to advocate for student water bottles. The following day, Cunningham informed Blechman that she was being placed on administrative leave, pending an investigatory meeting, and cited comments from Hernandez that Blechman was “bullying” and “creating a hostile environment at Fort River.” Later, Human Resources Director Kathryn Mazur emailed Blechman about the matter, noting that she appeared to “coach others in the building in challenging the authority of the principal.”

The School Committee on Oct. 25 conducted Blechman’s investigatory meeting, and directed her to return to work the following day. The union contends that the committee thus “independently interfered with, coerced and restrained Blechman in the exercise of her rights.”

Terry, in his response, states that Blechman’s hostility toward Hernandez began after Banda’s resignation and pushed back on the administrative decisions Hernandez made. “For example, at meetings held by Mr. Hernandez to discuss COVID-19 protocols, Ms. Blechman did not agree that students should be allowed to take their masks off while outside.” This led to her creating her own document for pandemic guidelines. Terry adds that Blechman was disruptive to a professional development program.

In the end, Terry writes, the district was unable to complete its investigation because “staff members refused to participate in the investigation due to a fear that Ms. Blechman would retaliate against them.”

Ben Herrington, chairman of the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee, wrote in an email that the complaint remains unresolved.

“Their statement is in regard to a matter that has not yet gone to hearing and has not actually been resolved yet,” Herrington wrote.

Magee, though, argues that retaliation against educators has become a pervasive problem in the district. “Because of the gravity of the unlawful conduct outlined in the complaint, this incident has strengthened the APEA’s resolve to aggressively adjudicate additional unscrupulous actions taken by the district to prevent people from exercising their legally protected rights to a safe workplace,” Magee said.