When the board of The Ethical Community Charter School (TECCS) notified parents in an email that it had fired the school’s beloved principal, Marta Bergamini, chaos and anger ensued. Parents, teachers, and students took to the streets in protest and gathered hundreds of signatures petitioning for Bergamini’s reinstatement. Parents participated in virtual Zoom meetings with the board, demanding the resignation of its four-member executive committee that seemed to be behind the principal’s dismissal but to no avail.
Today, the school’s future hangs in limbo. When the board announced it had terminated Bergamini’s contract, the vice principal, Elisha Abdelaal, resigned as did the school’s secretary. With just a month before school is expected to re-open under Covid-19 guidelines put forth by Governor Phil Murphy, parents, teachers, and students worry that without leadership the school will close forever, leaving students heartbroken and in the lurch.
How can it be possible that a non-profit charter school’s board can wield such immense power without input from parents, teachers, and students? Why would a board make a decision with such huge impact on students during the Covid-19 pandemic when they are already anxious about how school will resume in the fall? Meanwhile, parents and teachers, and members of the board opposed to the firing are trying to pick up the pieces of TECCS’s shattered future. Talks are under way to hire a lawyer to litigate the legality of the principal’s firing while some parents are pulling their children from the school.
Board member Dan Ackman has served on TECCS’12-member board for two years. He says that in late June, the board’s four-member executive committee, Chairman Sonya “Terry” Still, Vice Chairman Peter Went, Trustees Veronica Park and Gordon Gemma fired principal Bergamini, “a beloved figure of the school” without demonstrating a reason or offering an explanation. Ackman says that he and the other board members think Bergamini’s firing was illegal.
“They need to have a vote of the board and meeting of the board and had neither,” Ackman says. “It was extremely poor choice of timing. The school had to plan for re-opening in the midst of a pandemic and no successor was identified. It was reckless in terms of our educational mission and legally dubious. This was a very poor decision and quite possibly an illegal decision.”
When word got out that Bergamini’s contract had not been renewed, parents and teachers were furious, Ackman says.
“We had a board meeting on July 8 on Zoom, and hundreds of parents were in attendance,” Ackman says. “They were telling the executive committee to resign.”
Ackman made a motion at the July 8 board meeting for the board to rescind Bergamini’s cancelled contract and issue her a new contract, but it never seemed “to get on track,” Ackman says. By the next board meeting on July 27, a lawyer announced to everyone on Zoom that contract negotiations with Bergamini had failed, and she was not going to be brought back.
“They never made an attempt at negotiations,” Ackman said. “As far as I’m concerned there were no grounds for firing Marta. They have not explained themselves, and I find that outrageous. They [the board’s executive committee] didn’t say why they fired her. The only thing they accused her of was that she told fellow staff members what was happening at the negotiating sessions. But they have no right to tell her what she can say to other people.”
One question looming over Bergamini’s firing seems to be its timing. At the end of June, the executive committee (made up of four board members) offered Bergamini a renewal contract. But days later the committee rescinded the offer and told the principal that June 30th was her last day on the job. Then in early August, after efforts to re-hire Bergamini came to naught, a want ad was posted on a school jobs site, saying TECCS was seeking a new “head of school.” Mysteriously, the ad state its “Board Apporved [sic] Date” was May 15, 2020, which was six weeks before Bergamini was fired.
According to Ackman, “It’s true that the board as a whole and even those who fired Marta had stated both orally and in writing that there was no plan to fire her. I have since learned that Terry Still and Peter Went had had prior discussions about firing Marta months before they did so. I know the ad has that May 15 date, but I do not know who placed the ad. The full board did not see the ad before it was placed.”
In the months prior to Bergamini’s firing, Ackman says there was a motion to extend the terms of board members whose terms were to end June 30. Those extensions included the terms for board Chairman Still and Vice Chairman Went. Their terms were extended without an amendment to the bylaws, which Ackman says is illegal. Had the chairman and vice chairman’s terms ended in June as intended, Bergamini’s contract could have been reinstated.
“You can’t extend without an amendment in the bylaws,” Ackman says. “Now we still have on the board these two people who drove Marta away, people that Marta said she couldn’t really work with. Had they been off the board, she might have been reinstated. That’s why we are contemplating legal action. We also think the original firing was illegal.
“I’ve been a trustee for two years, and in no time did anyone discuss getting rid of Marta,” Ackman says. “No one on the board talked about it. No one talked to me outside a board meeting about that. It seems Terry and Peter have been talking about firing her with offhand comments at parties, statements made to a major donor to the school. Most significant donors talked about this, and told Terry it was a bad idea.”
According to Ackman, after Bergamini’s firing, major donors including the Simon Foundation may pull funding.
“Terry needs to call a meeting,” Ackman says. “She has advocated hiring a consultant. We would need a meeting to vote on it, and she’s not calling the meeting. It doesn’t seem ethical to me. It doesn’t seem legal and seems very reckless. There was a seven–to–one vote to bring Marta back. There was four abstentions. Terry and Peter were among the abstainers.”
Could the school close? There is that fear but Ackman says it’s likely the board will hire an interim principal.
“Legally you need a lead person to open a school, and we don’t have one at the moment,” Ackman says. “Definitely we’re on a perilous path. I don’t think we’ll be closed or refused the right to open. Nobody’s sure how we’re going to open.”
Sounds of Silence
The Jersey City Times reached out to the four members of the board’s executive committee— Board Chairman Sonya “Terry” Still, Vice Chairman Peter Went, and Trustees Veronica Park and Gordon Gemma—to comment on Bergamini’s firing. Two emails were sent to Chairman Still, but she did not respond. Vice Chairman Went responded that he was not authorized to speak to the press. Trustee Park stated in an email, “As I’m sure you are aware, board members are expected to follow basic confidentiality guidelines especially in regards to personnel matters.”
When pressed to address the board’s plan regarding opening TECCS in the fall and if the school will have to close, Park did not reply. The Jersey City Times also reached out to Trustee Nia Armstrong for comment, and her email was almost a carbon copy of Park’s email: “As I’m sure you are aware, board trustees must abide by confidentiality in matters that relate to employment and other sensitive matters. I will not be available to take part in your interview.”
Jersey City Times also reached out to Bergamini and has received no response.
A Great Principal
TECCS opened in 2009 with 120 kindergartners and first graders. Since then, it has added a grade each year and in 2016 became a K–8 school with an average of 400 students per year. Its students collectively speak more than 40 languages, and the school has a strong special education team with approximately 15 percent of students receiving individualized education plans.
According to her Linkedin profile, Principal Bergamini has been an educator for more than 25 years. She taught Spanish to first through eighth grades and established herself as the lead teacher for the district. In 2007, Bergamini was awarded the Governor’s Teacher Recognition Award. In 2008, she was recognized for her work improving the professional development of teachers. She holds a master’s degree in Educational Leadership.
“Principal Bergamini set up the school,” parent Mike Vago says. “Every teacher in that school could be making money elsewhere, but they stayed on because they liked the environment she fostered.”
Val Emmich is the parent of a fourth grade student and of an incoming kindergartner. He says Bergamini was a great principal, loving and sincere with the students.
“She had a wonderful calm presence, and she really looked out for her staff,” Emmich says.
Parents’ backlash against Bergamini’s firing began when the board sent out an email announcing that her contract would not be renewed.
“It was done in the last paragraph in a long email as if it was an afterthought,” Emmich says. “The wisdom of it seems to be lacking. That hurt us. TECCS is not a perfect school, and Marta wasn’t the perfect principal, but she was constantly open to change and evolving.”
Parent Heather Wahl says Bergamini knew all the students by name. She would hold morning meetings where the entire school would go into the gym and talk about issues affecting them.
“Marta had an open door, and you could talk with her about any issue,” Wahl says. “She was very involved with the children. And that’s why she has so much support.”
Like other parents, Wahl isn’t happy about how Bergamini’s dismissal was handled.
“It happened behind closed doors,” Wahl says. “An executive committee was formed without the knowledge of the board. They made decisions without the rest of the board knowing. How can four people have that much control?”
The number of parents supporting Bergamini’s reinstatement and the executive committee’s resignations are staggering. There were more than 600 signatures on the petition to reinstate Bergamini; 180 devices logged in to the first Zoom meeting, and 170 logged in to the next one.
“It’s my understanding that parents are pulling their kids out of the school, and without those classrooms full, how will the school survive?” Wahl asks. “It’s The Ethical Community Charter School, but they’re not living up to the name. There’s no transparency. They are ignoring the parents.”
What is most alarming is the board’s tone, Emmich says, which has been dismissive and abrasive.
“I’ve gotten to know several board members who are reasonable and working hard to listen to parents,” Emmich says, “but there’s a sect that is leading the charge and goes against what I and other parents love about the school. Their actions are not transparent. They are abrasive in tone. There’s arrogance and a lot of deceit. I’m upset that there is a small minority that is not bowing to the will of the parents and faculty.”
When parents and students protested outside the school, Emmich says he stood on the street with protest signs next to teachers in tears.
“TECCS teachers don’t get paid a lot, but they felt supported and protected by their principal,” Emmich says.
A Teacher’s Perspective
“My first reaction was shock and disbelief,” TECCS ethics teacher Geoffrey Renaud says. “As soon as Marta was removed, her email was cut off, she was unable to communicate with people, and they were not able to communicate with her. It created problems. She was the lead person on
planning graduation. She was the lead person on getting summer school together. She was the lead person on the Covid-19 reopening plan.
When they remove that person without warning and immediately delete her email account and the documents attached to it, they put her in a bad situation, but they really put the whole school community in a bad situation. I have two kids enrolled in the school. I spoke to many other parents. All of us were concerned that people have to be in school amid the Covid-19 epidemic, and on top of that we don’t have our school leader who we know and trust who was leading this process and with no plan to put in somebody else. It just boggles the mind.”
Renaud says that from day one in kindergarten, students are taught ethics that address conflict resolution, mindfulness, and the concept of right and wrong.
“I would consider her termination unethical,” Renaud says. “It was done in secrecy, without warning, and without proper channels, with no recognition of the damage to hundreds of parents and children. I’m trying hard to find anything ethical about it.”
One Student’s Experience
On July 30, Ines Kinney graduated from TECCS in the school’s parking lot a month after the board fired principal Bergamini. Along with her classmates, Kinney graduated without Bergamini’s personally handing her the diploma she had earned and the congratulations and hug that went with it.
“It was super nice to see everybody, but Miss Bergamini was not there,” Ines says. “So instead, Miss Abdelaal made a speech, dedicated it to Miss Bergamini, and everyone cheered. Everyone is so upset. No one is happy that she left.”