Newark principals sue charging Cami Anderson violated their First Amendment rights

Five principals who were suspended by Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson after they spoke out publicly against the plan to further expand charter schools in Newark have sued the school district charging that Anderson's action violated their First Amendment rights. Anderson, a former New York City school administrator who began her career in Teach for America, was appointed by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Although Newark has an elected school board, under corporate school reform laws, Newark has been under state control for almost a generation (since 1995).

Newark schools chief Cami Anderson (above right) was appointed by Governor Chris Christie.The principals had spoken out against what is described as a "school reorganization plan" in the press but which in reality is a charter school expansion plan. On Friday, January 24, the district lifted the five suspensions. The order re-instated three of the principals to their schools and ordered two to report to the districts central office today for "reassignment." A parent group joined the lawsuit because the Anderson administration removed leaflets proposing a meeting critical of the plan from the city's schools.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported as follows on January 27, 2014:

NEWARK Five Newark school principals suspended for speaking out against a controversial school reorganization plan filed a federal lawsuit today charging that their constitutional rights to free speech were violated.

In addition, one schools parent-teacher organization president joined the suit, saying the districts refusal to allow him to enter his childrens school was also unconstitutional.

The six are seeking a restraining order against Superintendent Cami Anderson and the state-operated school district.

"This is an important issue not only for my six plaintiffs but for the entire employee base in Newark for their ability to speak up in the capacity of private citizens on issues of public concern," attorney Robert Pickett said.

Four principals H. Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Tony Motley of Bragaw Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont Runyan School and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue School were suspended with pay Jan. 17, two days after they spoke at a community meeting at a Newark church intended to oppose Andersons One Newark plan.

The principals work at schools affected by the plan. Hawthorne and Bragaw are targeted for use by charter schools and Maple is set to become an early childhood learning center. Belmont Runyon has been designated a "renew" school, which means new leadership will be installed and teachers will be asked to reapply for their positions. Browns school, Ivy Hill, is designated for "redesign."

The fifth principal, Lisa Brown of Ivy Hill Elementary, was suspended for not heeding the districts ban on Daryn Martin, the head of Ivy Hills parent-teacher organization who was escorted from the school Jan. 15 after he protested the removal of fliers he posted that were critical of the reorganization plan.

Brown, who was not at the event, had been "outspoken in other public forums as a private citizen to address the issues her school community has" with the districts reorganization plan.

"The school district has violated their rights and wed like a judge to say that," Pickett said. "Public employees have a right to talk about issues of public concern."

On Friday, the district lifted the five suspensions, and re-instated Motley, James and Handfield to their schools. Brown and Washington reported to the districts central office today for reassignment.

A Newark Public Schools spokesman had no comment on the lawsuit.

The complaint argues that the suspensions of the five principals and banning of a parent are part of "a concerted effort to undermine, intimidate and coerce employees of the district, including the plaintiffs and members of the public, into agreeing with them on all issues related to any proposed reorganization plan."

The "arbitrary and capricious" suspensions have caused "irreparable injury to the plaintiffs and are in violation of the Constitution and the plaintiffs civil rights," the complaint contends.

Pickett said Martin is scheduled to appear in court tomorrow to ask the court to lift the ban on his entering the school his children attend.


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