Lopatcong EA breaks cycle of administrative abuse by standing up and speaking out
By Christy Kanaby
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Though at the time they weren’t thinking of these words, often attributed to George Orwell, it was the commitment to speak the truth that spurred a revolution within the Lopatcong Education Association (LEA,) a 90-member local in Warren County. For years, these educators and educational support professionals (ESP) were subjected to the egregious behavior of their district superintendent until they courageously broke their silence last fall.
Since Dr. Debra Mercora’s arrival in 2019, LEA members have been victims of a hostile work environment because of her countless—and well-documented—unprofessional actions.
Her behavior caused dissension and instability among district employees and contributed to a dramatic turnover of staff, including administrators.
In fact, for the last several years, a significant number of teachers and other staff members, including administrators, voluntarily left the school district for other jobs or have retired prematurely. This, coupled with the myriad challenges educators continue to face as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, caused many LEA members to reach their breaking point and motivated them to organize.
“Our schools, students and staff deserve to be part of a district that follows best practices, adheres to the laws and statutes governing our public schools, creates a climate of dignity and respect, and upholds the most basic tenets of character education. They also deserve a board of education and superintendent who share those sentiments,” said LEA President Sonnie Hall, who with LEA Vice President Amy Harmon courageously led their members to protect their schools and colleagues. “We refused to stand by and watch our students’ educational experience continue to be eroded or compromised in any way. We were determined to break the cycle of bad behavior and indicate—in no uncertain terms—that it won’t be tolerated any longer.”
Working with NJEA Field Representative John Ropars, NJEA network attorney Sanford Oxfeld, Esq., and NJEA Associate Director for Public Relations Christy Kanaby, the LEA first took their concerns to the Lopatcong Board of Education’s Liaison Council in September.
In those discussions, the LEA attempted to provide countless examples of times where Mercora routinely engaged in disrespectful behavior toward the current and former staff and demeaned and belittled employees—in front of other staff, students and parents—and retaliated against those who questioned her or exercised their rights under law. The board members refused to listen and shut down the conversation.
Breaking their silence
Unwilling to tolerate the mistreatment any longer, the LEA took its concerns directly to the community, publishing an open letter that detailed the issues within the district—the same issues brought to the Lopatcong Board’s Liaison Council months before. In response, the board issued its own public statement, claiming they were unaware of the problems and accusing the LEA of lying and committing “character assassination.”
“It’s shameful to hear the board blame those who’ve been victimized by our superintendent’s poor leadership instead of acknowledging their role in turning a blind eye to it,” said Hall. “It only strengthens our resolve to demand we return to the basics of integrity and respect and put an end to this unacceptable behavior, once and for all.”
Hall wasn’t the only one upset. Outraged by the board’s response, LEA members rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Networking with several parents and NJEA members who lived in the community, the LEA—and hundreds of their supporters from around the county and state—converged on the Dec. 14 board of education meeting to demand accountability and effectuate change.
With courage and conviction
At the meeting, more than 200 members of the association, parents, the public, and other advocates for the teachers and staff attended to raise their concerns. Bolstered by the support they received, member after member spoke up to tell their horror stories of their experience with Mercora. Some people were in tears when telling their stories, with one educator emotionally recounting Mercora’s callousness upon the member’s return to work after burying her daughter.
“I was so impressed and so proud of those leaders and members,” said Ropars. “It takes a lot of courage for a member to stand up in front of the board and public and tell your story. But one after another, they did it and drew strength from each other.”
Additionally, the LEA provided evidence that Mercora had a pattern of this type of behavior in her previous position. Members cited many news articles and the minutes from Neptune City Board of Education meetings that outlined the same problems. That behavior in Neptune resulted in Mercora submitting her resignation only five months after signing a new five-year contract. Several Neptune City educators corroborated the claims, having traveled to Lopatcong that evening to stand with LEA members.
The association then demanded that the board hire an outside investigator to look into the allegations in accordance with their own board policy. The board promised to investigate the matter, but multiple weeks went by without any resolution—or even investigation—in sight.
After the holiday break, LEA members and community residents began displaying lawn signs, banners, bumper magnets and T-shirts, all emblazoned with the words, “Truth Matters.” Social media was awash with LEA supporters, and the district’s January board of education meeting was standing-room only. It soon become apparent that the board knew it had a problem, and they reached out to the LEA to ask for time to address the matter internally.
The dawn of a new day
The LEA kept up the pressure, and—at its Feb. 8 meeting—the board announced it had hired an interim superintendent while a separation agreement was being negotiated to officially release Dr. Mercora from Lopatcong. Hall took the opportunity to commend the board for heeding the community’s call for action.
“While it’s unfortunate that it took so much time, angst and upset, I am gratified to find that we were heard … I am gratified that we finally can right the proverbial wrongs,” Hall told the board. “Though we know that some wounds take longer to heal than others, we also know that the validation of our concerns—and the recognition of the truth— sets us on the right path.”
Ropars praised the LEA members for their courage and tenacity to speak their truth throughout the ordeal. As a veteran NJEA staff member for the last 22 years, with over 45 years of union representative experience, he’s seen his share of bad administrators and the detrimental effect they have on public school employees and the students they serve.
“All too often, school employees feel powerless to fight against administrative mistreatment, like what occurred in Lopatcong.” said Ropars. “But to the credit of the local leaders and their members, as well as their allies in the community, they organized and implemented plans to bring attention to the abusive behavior—and they were successful. They just needed someone to point them in the right direction and spotlight the critical resources that NJEA can provide its affiliates.”
Hall echoed Ropars sentiment, citing the collective power union members can harness to get them through difficult times.
“Thanks to my union brothers and sisters, as well as the community members and parents who stood with us, we made a difference,” Hall concluded. “It’s a new day for Lopatcong; one full of promise and healing.”
Christy Kanaby is an associate director in the NJEA Communications Division. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.