A Passaic County judge ruled in favor of outspoken teacher Marcella Simadiris on Wednesday by invalidating tenure charges that the school board had approved against her in a closed-door meeting.
Simadiris wanted the school board to discuss and take a vote on the tenure charges against her in an open session at the May 22 meeting. School board members, after consulting their legal counsel, held the discussion and vote in a closed or executive session.
Simadiris sued accusing the school board of violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). She alleged the district failed to serve her with what’s called “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. She wanted the judge to invalidate the tenure charges that were approved at the closed meeting.
Judge Ernest Caposela agreed with her.
“This Court finds that Simadiris was entitled to an Open Public Meeting regarding the charges against her to revoke her tenure,” wrote Caposela in an opinion invalidating the board’s action.
School board members discussed the ruling in a closed-door meeting on Wednesday evening. The district’s chief attorney Robert E. Murray said the school board intends to appeal Caposela’s ruling.
“The district believes the judge is wrong,” said Paul Brubaker, spokesman for the Paterson Public Schools, on Thursday afternoon. He said the judge’s interpretation and application of the Kean Federation of Teachers v. Morrell case was erroneous. The judge had cited the case to assert Simadiris was entitled to an open hearing.
Murray had told the board at the May 22 meeting that tenure charges must be approved in a closed-door meeting by law.
Caposela’s ruling could have consequences beyond the Simadiris case. Murray said there are several other tenure cases that were approved in closed-door meetings. The judge’s decision essentially invalidates the board’s decisions approving tenure charges against the other defendants.
The judge’s decision states the board should give “proper” Rice Notice and decide whether to file tenure charges against Simadiris at an open session.
Tenure charges against Simadiris were approved in a tight 5-4 vote on May 22. Some of the allegations against her are bizarre. For example, the charging documents state Simadiris allegedly “slandered” superintendent Eileen Shafer at public meetings.
Simadiris has slammed successive administrations for incompetence and mismanagement of one of New Jersey’s lowest performing school districts at meetings. She criticized Shafer last September, a month later she was placed on suspension, accusing the superintendent of having done a poor job preparing for the 2018-19 school year.
Simadiris’ attorney has said the allegations against his client are false. Simadiris, who teaches physical education at the Frank Napier Academy, has said the district is attempting to silence her.
“I didn’t think there was enough evidence for the tenure charges,” said school board member Emanuel Capers, who voted against the tenure charges in May. “I think the district was wrong on this. Marcella comes to the board and speaks passionately. She holds us accountable. She wants to make sure we’re doing our jobs. She comes off aggressive, but she means well. She has our children’s best interest at heart.”
Capers worried the appeal will cost the district even more money. “We just need to cut our losses and deal with the situation,” he said.
Updated 12:34 p.m.