Mailbox Restrictions in Mass. Have Teachers 'Grieving'
High school teacher George M. Clement didn't get any Christmas cards in his school mailbox during the past holiday season. A fellow teacher hand- distributed wedding invitations instead of using the mailboxes. And, Mr. Clement said, unlike in years past, his box hasn't been stuffed with helpful articles and notes from co-workers that could enhance his classes.
That's because the fallout from a union dispute at Salem High School in Salem, Mass., has led to teachers being barred from using the mailboxes to send information out without getting the prior approval from their principal. The issue has spawned an unfair-labor-practices grievance.
"People just aren't using them at all," Mr. Clement, a social studies teacher who is in his third year at the school, said of the mailboxes. "It's professionally insulting to me. It's so childish."
The squabble started in September, when Salem district officials were trying to hammer out a contract with the local teachers' union.
Mr. Clement and four other teachers at Salem High had concerns about terms of the contract being advocated by union leaders and printed up fliers listing their objections. They delivered their fliers to nearly all teachers' mailboxes in the 5,000-student Salem school district.
The following day, the "gang of five," as they're now known, were pulled out of class and told that the only "mail" permitted in the mailboxes had to be given the nod by the school's principal.
Only leaders of the Salem Teachers Union may distribute information in the mailboxes without permission from the principal, said Daniel B. Kulak, a lawyer representing the district.
Union leaders backed that interpretation of the contract.
That didn't sit right with Salem English teacher Betty Anne Babcock. Though not one of the five involved in the mail incident last fall, she filed an unfair-labor- practices grievance last month with the state's labor-relations board against both the American Federation of Teachers affiliate and the school district. The outcome is pending.
In her complaint, Ms. Babcock said that despite Principal Ann M. Papagiotas' assertion that all mail had to go through her, "use of mailboxes has never been prohibited in the past," and the teacher handbook has no "written reference to any mailbox restriction."
The whole issue even sparked the creation of a Web site (one of the five disgruntled teachers was a Web developer in a previous career) devoted to Salem High School concerns, much of it filled with comments about the mailbox dust-up. Mr. Clement said the mailbox issue, along with adjusting to a new principal and a move to block scheduling, had dampened school morale.
"The students sense the mood," he said.
But David J. McGrath, the president of the Salem Teachers Union and a technology education teacher at the high school, said he had spoken with Ms. Papagiotas on behalf of union members, and they informally agreed that only mass mailings must be approved by the principal.
Mr. McGrath said the whole to-do over mailboxes hasn't really had a widespread effect on teachers' operations.
"I wouldn't say there was a lot of mailbox use" to begin with, he said.
For Mr. Clement and others in the "gang of five," however, the dispute has cast a pall over their tenure at Salem High.
"It's like we're the resistance; ... we're the bad boys," he said last week. "They're playing with our jobs here."
Mr. Clement said that he was seeking a teaching job elsewhere.
Vol. 23, Issue 26, Page 9Published in Print: March 10, 2004, as Mailbox Restrictions in Mass. Have Teachers 'Grieving'