An Open Letter to the Paterson Community,
As you may have heard, the Paterson Education Association (PEA) was vindicated in its efforts to exercise our right under law to inspect the district buildings’ HVAC and other ventilation systems, as well obtain maintenance logs for these items. On May 19, the Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the Paterson School District, stating we must be provided immediate access and the walkthroughs must be completed no later than May 28. Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends.
Late on May 21, the Paterson School District filed a motion to dissolve the TRO, and on May 22, a hearing between both sides was held. In the decision that followed, PERC upheld the PEA’s right to inspect the systems and obtain the accompanying maintenance logs, as well as chastised the District for not doing so before.
The May 22 decision also resulted in the dissolution of the second part of the restraining order which permitted the District to move forward with its plan to begin to require employees to return to their respective worksites on June 1. However, PERC was clear that—should the HVAC and ventilation systems not prove to be in working order and/or the maintenance logs fail to demonstrate consistent upkeep—they would revisit that portion of the decision.
After receiving a May 23 late-night email from Ms. Shafer stating we may begin the walkthroughs on May 24, the PEA arrived at the buildings early Monday morning. In many cases, we were denied access by administrative staff—citing a directive from Ms. Shafer to not permit PEA representatives entry to these areas—and in other cases, we were asked to sign waivers stating we wouldn’t sue if we were exposed to hazardous toxins along the way. Both were unexpected and unnecessary, as well as violated the spirit and intent of the PERC decision.
Moreover, despite declaring in a recent media article that “…the time for frivolous legal actions and delay tactics that keep thousands of Paterson students in educational limbo is over,”, the District continued to file motions to urge PERC to change its mind—one as late as midnight on May 25, necessitating an early-morning hearing on May 26— and prevent us from discovering what ultimately Ms. Shafer hoped we’d never find: many of the schools’ HVAC systems were victims of long-term neglect, not fully operable and, in general, unacceptable environments for Paterson’s students and staff.
While it is disappointing to learn that Ms. Shafer’s feelings about a cease-fire are nothing more than a sound bite, it is alarming to see the lengths to which she and the Paterson School District would go to avoid the truth coming out. Again, don’t take our word for it; visit the PEA website at www.patersonea.org to see the state of disrepair and situations we faced for yourself.
As we have long-stated, the PEA refuses to compromise the health and safety of those returning to our district’s school buildings. Unfortunately, the issues that Paterson’s schools face are long-standing and varied, and won’t be resolved quickly. However, we need to do more than just admit they exist; we need to put together a comprehensive plan to address them.
With the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), nearly $2.8 billion is now dedicated to New Jersey’s public schools to advance the process of returning safely to in-person instruction. Additionally, ARPA stipulates that both the State of New Jersey and school districts now are required to work with educators to determine how and where to invest these resources, and the PEA fully intends to have a seat at the table.
But we shouldn’t stop there. As we have said time and again, health and safety should never be a labor-management issue, and our respective organizations agree: It takes a village to educate our children, and it’s going to take our collective efforts to ensure that our schools provide the best possible environment for their students. If you haven’t seen it, please take a minute to view the joint position statement issued by 16 community, administrative and labor unions within our state.
As always, the PEA stands ready to work with all stakeholders to protect Paterson’s students and community—as well as stands ready to fight for what we know is right—until our schools are safe to reopen. However, to do this effectively, we need to be honest about the issues we are facing and begin with total transparency. Anything less is a disservice to the children within our collective care.
John McEntee, Jr., President
Paterson Education Association