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Teachers Search for Direction in Wake of Perelman Labor Clash

May 14, 2014 By:
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Lisa Richman, a longtime Jewish Studies teacher and Perelman union president, suggested signing a petition against the board's decision.

A group of about 70 teachers, alumni and parents of students at Perelman Jewish Day School congregated at a Bryn Mawr library on Monday night to confer on their next course of action following the school board’s decision to unilaterally withdraw recognition of the teachers’ union.

Since that March 24 decision, the American Federation of Teachers, which has represented the teachers since 1976, has filed unfair labor practice charges against the Conservative-affiliated elementary school for “interfering with the faculty members’ rights under federal law.” There has not yet been movement on the case, according to union officials.

The meeting at the Ludington Library was billed as a dialogue between parents and teachers about the school’s future in the aftermath of the decision. However, only about five parents of current students showed up. One of them was Aaron Freiwald, the board member who headed the task force behind the change.

Freiwald reiterated that the board felt tenure and seniority had to be part of any new contract negotiations but, according to him, a representative of the union made it clear that this “was a non-starter and there would be no negotiations.”

Shelly Snyder, the AFT representative for Perelman, refuted that account. “Yes, tenure and seniority were mentioned, and I indicated to the board’s attorney that that would be very, very difficult to get a ratification of that kind of collective bargaining agreement from the members,” Snyder said. “But basically that’s all that was said.”

Following the board’s decision, current teachers were required to sign a new handbook outlining general employee guidelines. Under those terms, which take effect in the fall, faculty members could be fired at any time without cause, a hearing or any recourse, according to the AFT. All 59 teachers signed those handbooks.

About 30 teachers from Stern and just a handful from the school’s Forman campus in Melrose Park attended the meeting. Glen Feinberg, the science teacher at the school’s Stern Center in Wynnewood, suggested that several teachers didn’t come because “they’re afraid they won’t have a job if they speak up for what’s right for PJDS and their students.” 

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Wynnewood,  joined several teachers in addressing the crowd. “You cannot negotiate out of fear and anger and do that with kavod,” he said. 

Other speakers at the meeting included teacher Janet Conn, a teacher who publicized that she added a note to the handbook guidelines she signed expressing that she was signing “with a heavy heart,” and Ian Hartshorn, a representative of the Jewish Labor Committee, who voiced the group’s support of the teachers’ union.
 
A former teacher also read a letter of support penned by Burton Caine, a former law professor at Temple University who was Perelman’s president from 1970-1973.

Lisa Richman, the Perelman union president and a longtime Judaic studies teacher at the school, told those in attendance that they could contact board members, sign a petition against the decision and speak with fellow parents and community members about the teachers’ need for solidarity and support.

For his part, Freiwald suggested that the two sides focus on future dialogue and not look back at the board’s decision.

“I do not mean to offend or disappoint or upset any of you when I say that I don’t believe that anything in this room will change the decision,” Freiwald said. “But we can all change how we go forward. I will be happy to accept responsibility for my part in any way in which this was handled that conveyed disrespect to any single or group of teachers. This was never for a second my intention. That is not in the heart of any members of the board.”

When the meeting concluded, several teachers drove to the Stern campus to confront board members, who were meeting there, about their refusal to negotiate. According to one of the teachers who went, the group was allowed to speak for a short time before the board entered a closed executive session.

For all the discussion of finding ways to move forward, the evening was marked with an air of despondence and frustration that was summed up by teacher Na’ama Yarden.

“On March 24, we understood something very difficult for us to accept: We learned that Jewish schools are businesses that are run in a harsh, cold, secretive way and we were even more amazed to hear from the same board that they appreciate us, respect us, love and think greatly of our educational ability and personal devotion,” said Yarden, who teaches Jewish studies at the Stern campus. “So now, you tell me, how does this work together? How do words like that work with actions like that?”

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