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Testimony finished in DPS labor complaint

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Michigan Employment Relations Commission finished hearing allegations Wednesday that a Detroit Public Schools teacher faced retaliation for publicizing a shortage of books at her school.

Patricia Murray, principal of East English Village Preparatory Academy, testified during the resumption of the July 8 hearing that she asked teacher Nicole Conaway to speak with her first about issues at the school before going public.

Conaway alleges Murray’s action was a “veiled threat” against her for publishing an article about late delivery of books in the Detroit Federation of Teachers newspaper.

In her testimony, Murray explained that a shooting had occurred in the school parking lot the year before.

“Parents won’t want to bring their kids to our building after something like that, so we had a meeting and decided to try to portray our school in a positive light,” the principal testified. “I told her that we’re trying to build a brand, that if she needed clarity on something to come to me first.”

Murray said she was “blown away,” when she learned Conaway had filed a grievance against her after one conversation, instead of sitting down and talking about it.

Following Wednesday’s hearing before administrative law Judge Travis Calderwood, Conaway said her lawyer, Monica Smith, made a strong case that DPS violated Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act.

“I was hoping we’d have a decision today,” said Conaway, who still teaches math at the school. “But I feel confident and very pleased with the closing statements from my lawyer and I think she clearly explained that it was a violation of PERA, which exists specifically to protect employees and teachers’ rights to work with their union to improve work and learning conditions, which is exactly what I was doing.”

The next step, according to Smith, is for both sides to present final briefs to Calderwood. Once he reviews the briefs, Calderwood will make his decision in the case filed against the district by the DFT.

The hearing began July 8 before Calderwood on one of three unfair labor practice charges filed against DPS and emergency manager Darnell Earley.

Both Conaway and Murray testified during the 31/2-hour hearing three weeks ago.

During the first day of testimony, Conaway said she was chatting with another teacher who expressed relief that she finally had received her Spanish textbooks. At that encounter, Conaway said, “I looked at her and said, “It’s February, and you’re just getting your books?’ So when I went to a union meeting, I brought up the fact that school started in September and she just received her books in February. I also mentioned it in an article published in the union’s newspaper.”

It was then, said Conaway, that Murray asked to see her after class, and told her she should talk to her first before talking about the school to the union paper. “It sounded like a strongly veiled threat to me,” said Conaway.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, Smith said she was “confident we will win.”

“Principal Murray’s actions were clearly in violation of the law, which is designed to protect teachers like Nicole Conaway who fight for the rights of teachers and students.”

In a statement, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district would not discuss the complaint.

“Because this is an ongoing matter, we will not comment on the specific case,” she said. “However, DPS has and will continue to follow the terms of the collective bargaining agreements, all applicable laws regarding collective bargaining and all other matters pertaining to the best interest of the district.”

DFT president Steve Conn said the case is only the beginning of others being brought against the district in unfair labor complaints.

“Retaliation against teachers is rampant in DPS, and we’re not taking it anymore,” he said. “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

slewis@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2296