MEA filed ‘unfair labor practice’ against district over denial of religious holiday

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MANCHESTER, NH — A grievance filed last week by Manchester Education Association against the school district for discriminatory practices pertaining to a religious holiday has been denied, leaving some teachers with their religious rights “violated,” according to the teachers union.

MEA President Sue Ellen Hannan says such a holiday request is covered under the current contract language. However, because the holiday, Good Friday, falls on the day before the start of April school vacation week, the contract specifies that while members cannot take a personal day before a vacation, a religious-sick day is acceptable.

School Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas said that granting the “unprecedented” number of requests submitted for a holiday on April 19 this year — about 50 — would have created a “hardship” for the district.  Hannan said many who applied for the day off sent in their requests months ago.

Hannan said the timing of the denial by the labor board of a “cease and desist” filing by the MEA, which came at 5 p.m. on April 18, gave no time to arbitrate the decision before the religious day in question.

The superintendent sent his denial on Wednesday, Hannan said, going over the timeline of the grievance.

“Because of the time crunch, we also filed the unfair labor practice at the same time as the grievance, and asked for a ruling of cease and desist by the district to stop the denials for the religious day and to approve those who had been denied,” Hannan said Thursday night. “We will continue to pursue the rights of our members, but some will have their rights violated tomorrow.”

Below are three statements regarding the grievance and denial. The first issued by Hannan, the second issued by Vargas, and the third, a response to Vargas’ statement, also issued by Hannan.

Initial statement released by Hannon:

The MEA feels that the discriminatory practice of denying a religious holiday, just because it happens to fall on the day before a school vacation, is unjust. We have many members who needed to take elderly parents to services, travel out of state for services, or attend their home place of worship where services take place during the day. The District made determinations about the worthiness of the requests, but did not share those metrics with MEA. The District informed MEA that neither Good Friday nor Passover are days where religions require that members do not work. However, according to the contract, the District should have approved the religious day and ask for proof of attendance at services afterward. Our contract states specifically that members cannot take a personal day before a vacation, but a religious-sick day is acceptable. We had discussed this issue with the Superintendent and his team for two months, and they were agreeable to this information. We were told that there were more people this year who had applied for the religious day than in years past, and we understand the District’s issue with that. Unfortunately, District has not acted appropriately or with empathy on a number of occasions lately. This breaks down the collaborative efforts and the communication ties between us.

Statement released April 18 by district Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas:

“This year we experienced an unprecedented number of requests (more than triple that of three years ago) for personal days off for religious purposes this Friday.  Although we approved a significant number of requests, we could not accommodate all without imposing hardship on the operation of our schools. Unfortunately, even though we offered the opportunity for time off during the day to attend religious services, the Union filed an unfair labor practice.  If this issue went unchecked, I felt it would negatively impact our ability to provide our students with the consistency needed in the schools. I am pleased that common sense has prevailed as the motion brought by the union to the State of NH Public Employee Labor Relations Board was denied.”

Statement was released by Hannan in response to Vargas’ statement:

I am disappointed that teachers will not be able to observe religious holidays even though the contract allows them to do so. This is another example of the superintendent changing established and bargained-for working conditions and it will negatively impact these religious observers who will miss this opportunity to observe with family and in the manner they choose to do so. I am proud that the MEA filed for immediate action when the Superintendent was denying the contractual and religious rights of its members and the MEA will always fight up for its members rights when they are denied. MEA was told there were only about 50 who asked for this day out of 1,100 educators. Many who applied for this day sent in their requests months ago. In his grievance denial letter the Superintendent stated his solution was that employees may take two hours on April 19, 2019 to attend a ‘local’ religious service if they send the ‘information regarding the local service … and the time of said service’ to him by the end of the day on April 17, 2019. The District is not entitled to determine an employee’s religiosity. In all my years in Manchester, I have never experienced this type of massive disregard for people’s religious practices. And although the Labor Board did not order a cease and desist, our intention is to move forward with the grievance that we filed.”

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