Outspoken school teacher Marcella Simadiris, who has been suspended without pay following the school board’s certification of tenure charges, filed a lawsuit against the school district on Tuesday.
Simadiris alleges the school board violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) by failing to provide her what’s called a “Rice Notice” which gives an employee the option to decide whether to have the consideration of adverse employment action at an open or closed-door session.
Simadiris’ attorney, Alfred Maurice, received a courtesy email that the board would consider tenure charges against the longtime teacher at the May 22, 2019 meeting. He wrote back stating his client wanted the matter considered at an open session.
“She lost the vote 5-4. It may very well have been — if it was an open session or in front of the public – maybe somebody would have had different thoughts. I don’t know that,” said Maurice.
At the meeting, Simadiris told the school board she was not provided a notice and that she wanted the matter considered at an open session.
School board vice president Nakima Redmon asked general counsel Robert E. Murray whether it was proper to go into executive session to discuss the matter.
“It is proper to do a closed session. The Rice Notice does not apply to tenure hearings,” said Murray at the May 22 meeting. “By statute all tenure hearings must be conducted in closed sessions and may not be conducted in open session. Therefore, Rice Notice does not apply.”
Maurice disagreed. An old statute says a tenure charge matter should not be held at an open session to protect the privacy of an employee, he said. He said the newer law, the Open Public Meetings Act, trumps the older statute.
Simadiris is asking the court to vacate and render void the board’s resolution certifying tenure charges against her.
“We cannot comment on this matter as it is the subject of litigation,” said Paul Brubaker, spokesman for the Paterson Public Schools, on Thursday morning.
If a judge rules in Simadiris’ favor, the board’s action becomes void. The school board then will have to hold a fresh meeting to take a vote on certifying tenure charges against Simadiris. A dozen people attended the May 22 meeting to show their support for the teacher. Some urged the school board not to file tenure charges against her.
The lawsuit also seeks the court to direct the school district to conduct its meetings in compliance with state law. It also seeks legal fees and other relief.