A physical education teacher allegedly “slandered” “libeled” and “defamed” superintendent Eileen Shafer at public meetings, according to tenure charge documents the school district released in response to a records request on Wednesday.
The teacher, Marcella Simadiris, allegedly “has slandered, libeled and/or defamed her colleagues, Paterson School District Central Staff, especially the State District Superintendent, at public meetings, in correspondence and on social media in violation of applicable law,” reads one of ten charges and specifications used to justify tenure charges against her.
Simadiris allegedly did this at a City Council meeting on Oct. 9, 2018 and at various school board meetings, according to records.
The school district would not release the evidence of the alleged defamation. A review of school board minutes for the past years did not find Simadiris issuing any character attacks targeting Shafer (pictured).
“We are not able to comment on this matter as it is the subject of litigation,” said Paul Brubaker, spokesman for the Paterson Public Schools. He was asked to provide examples of purportedly libelous statements Simadiris made against Shafer.
Simadiris criticized Shafer last September, a month later she was placed on suspension. She accused the superintendent of having done a poor job preparing for the 2018-19 school year.
Public figures, like the superintendent, often receive criticism for their policies, programs, and actions at public meetings. Criticism of a public figure does not amount to libel and slander.
Shafer did not reply to Simadiris’ criticism at the September school board meeting.
“This allegation is clearly false and there is no competent evidence to support it,” wrote Simadiris’ attorney’s Alfred Maurice in responding to the district’s allegation.
Activists viewed the defamation allegation as the latest example of the district attempting to silence critics.
“This is yet another step and effort by Paterson Public Schools to silence and censor those who would dare speak truth to power,” said activist and former school board member Corey Teague. “They are trying to make an example out of her. I guess they don’t want people coming to the mic.”
Teague said Simadiris levied harsher criticism against former superintendent Donnie Evans.
“Criticizing a public official for doing a crappy job is not slander,” said Teague.
The school board in a narrow 5-4 vote approved tenure charges against Simadiris in late May. Board members Oshin Castillo, Nakima Redmon, Manuel Martinez, Joel Ramirez, and Kenneth Simmons voted in favor while Emanuel Capers, Jonathan Hodges, Eddy Olivares, and Robinson Rondon voted against.
Besides the allegation of defamation, the school district is alleging Simadiris violated board policies, engaged in insubordination, misconduct, harassment, and created a hostile work environment at School 4.
“It wasn’t enough evidence for me,” said board member Capers. “You have to have thick skin in this game. You have to face the fire.”
Capers had been on the receiving end of some of Simadiris’ criticism over the years.
Simadiris has filed a lawsuit against the district alleging the school board violated the Open Public Meetings Act. If she prevails in the lawsuit, which is separate from the tenure charges, the school board’s action will be voided.
“An injury to one, is an injury to all. The Union takes very seriously tenure charges against any of its members. Ms. Simadiris is no different. The Union has provided her with an attorney and we expect that he will work hard to contest these charges on her behalf,” said John McEntee, Jr., president of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers’ union.
McEntee was taken up on tenure charges in early 2017 for publicly challenging then-superintendent Evans. Evans’ action prompted protests from teachers. At the time, some said Evans was attempting to intimidate and silence the union chief.
McEntee beat the charges. The state did not renew Evans’ contract, prompting him to retire in Jul. 2017. Shafer succeeded him.