Malden students walk out amid faculty changes, cite communication problems

Students protest the faculty non-renewals on May 16 in downtown Malden. Photo by Amanda Hurley.

By Taylor Lee

Earlier this month, hundreds of Malden High School students walked out of classes midday to protest layoffs in the Malden public schools. The next day they held a vigil in downtown Malden attended by Malden residents and faculty.

Protestors were concerned that 105 education faculty members did not have their contracts renewed. 

“I will continue to march and protest in honor of this,” said Juliana Davidson, a senior at Malden High School. “I will not be silenced until resolutions are solved.”

MEA President Deborah Gesualdo addresses the Malden faculty non-renewals at the vigil. Photo by Amanda Hurley.

“We have 105 flameless candles, representative of the 105 educational relationships extinguished by the office of the superintendent,” said Malden Education Association President Deborah Gesualdo at the vigil. “We’re leaving them here to continue to represent every single one of those people. Every single one of those educators. As an acknowledgment of what will be lost in our district.”

Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ligia Noriega-Murphy released a statement on May 13 saying 63 “non-renewal letters” were sent out. She listed a variety of reasons, including performance-based cuts, low enrollment in classes and some faculty being temporary hires due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the bottom, the statement listed 42 other faculty assistant positions, such as ELL, literacy and math, as notified of the end of their contract date due to being grant-funded positions.

The walkout was held on May 16, with the vigil being held the following day.

“I have to say that I’m very, very proud of the students,” said Noriega-Murphy about the walkout when reached out for comment. “The way it was handled. And I was in touch with some people that were organizing that, students and adults, amazing. I have to say I respect when people want to express their feelings and opinions in a very calm way.”

This initial number of 105 total non-renewals has been disputed by Noriega-Murphy and School Committee member Adam Weldai.

“I think that the information was very misleading at the beginning with 105 staff members when there were actually only nine cuts for the system,” said Noriega-Murphy.

Noriega-Murphy’s message to Malden residents.

Weldai acknowleged that the initial 105 number was incorrect. “Unfortunately, a lot of the rhetoric and information out there around the layoffs just wasn’t true, and that’s to no fault of the students,” said Weldai. “There were definitely communication breakdowns from our central office, and the people who were messaging information about the non-renewal letters. As the superintendent explained in public meetings, the number was never 105, it was far less – unfortunately even after that correction, the misleading messaging still continued. We’re looking forward to working collaboratively with Mayor Christenson to see some of those positions be restored, see some of the teachers who had licensure issues get those resolved, and make sure the communication improves in the future.”

This dispute was among multiple communication issues cited by the faculty union. President of the Malden Education Association (MEA) Deborah Gesualdo described these issues in an email with Neighborhood View. 

According to Gesualdo, the only form of communication she received on these non-renewals was an email on May 11, 2022, directly preceding the non-renewal notices going out on the following two days. She said that typically, the MEA president receives a list of these non-renewals beforehand; this was not done. The large number of notices were also something that was not communicated beforehand, she said. 

“Non-renewal notices go out every year, so that was not unexpected — what was unexpected was the volume and the fact that nearly everyone who received a notice was surprised to have received one,” said Gesualdo.

Students protest in downtown Malden as a response to the 105 non-renewals. Photo by Amanda Hurley.

Literary assistants, math assistants, EL assistants and family liaisons also typically receive a letter of appointment at the beginning of the year with an end date. Their letters did not have an end date this year, leading many to believe that they would be renewed for the 2022-2023 academic year.

Another communication issue surrounded the licensure of teachers within the district. Noriega-Murphy said the process for teacher licensure could be more actively communicated with the teachers union, but noted they were recently able to drop the teachers with licensing issues from 76 to 10.

This was a stark contrast to what Gesualdo said. She insisted only a small number of non-educators had fallen under this category of licensure issues and poor performance.

“As of today, five educators fall into the category of having licensure issues and 11 fall into the category of poor performance ratings on their evaluations,” said Gesualdo through email. “It is also important to note that some people who received poor performance ratings on their evaluations experienced evaluation irregularities (ex. breakage of the contractual evaluation process) and the Malden Education Association is pursuing grievances on their behalf because their evaluations are not valid.”

“Five licensure non-renewals were rescinded on May 20 after working through some of the licensure issues,” Gesualdo continued. “Even prior to the five rescinded notices, 10 educators fell into the category of licensure issues–this means that the total number in the first row of the table provided by the Superintendent of Schools on May 13 was false. This means that there are people lumped into the category of licensure issues and non-performance who do not fall under either category.”

Students protest the faculty non-renewals on May 16 in downtown Malden. Photo by Amanda Hurley.

Gesualdo expanded on this process, saying it involves consistent communication and public meetings where budget deficits can be brought to light and mulled over painstakingly in order to reduce the amount of cuts. Superintendents in the past held meetings with other districts, as well as other staff unions. The total number of people non-renewed in past years were 14, 15 and 27 respectively. Additionally, positions eliminated due to program cuts need to follow contractual reduction in forces language.

“The contractual reduction in forces language was not followed and the Malden Education Association has filed a class action grievance on the matter,” said Gesualdo.

Noriega-Murphy explained how her prior district distributed non-renewals on June 15 rather than the mid-May timeline used in Malden, which caused some of the confusion. She said she wants to create better systems in place for communication going forward and adopt preventative measures that also remind teachers to reapply for their licenses and give them vouchers to take Massachusetts Teacher License Exam workshops.

“Next year, what I’m going to do is create a district calendar from the beginning that describes when these notifications are going to be given so people know it’s going to happen,” said Noriega-Murphy.

As a part of Malden’s preliminary school budget, money has been allocated to installing an updated literacy and numeracy curriculum for grades K-8.

“The curriculum that we are covering, they don’t even publish any of the textbooks anymore,” said Noriega-Murphy. “All the teachers are trying to create their own material, photocopying in good faith, but we don’t have an aligned curriculum. So we were able to do that.”

Students and former students alike weighed in during the vigil on how Malden could improve the teacher renewal process.

More students protest in Malden. Photo by Amanda Hurley.

“Specifically, I’d like to see our non-renewed contracts be renewed,” said Davidson. “I’d like to see direct communication with the public. I’d like to see open-door meetings and more clear processes on why things are happening and how we can fix them realistically. I believe that we can fully do that with the cooperation of central office if they’re willing to help.”

The protest “sends a message to the city that students here are listening,” said recent Malden High graduate Billy Zeng. “The youth here are listening, they’re organizing. I know [Karen] Colon-Hayes introduced a resolution to establish youth council here in Malden. Unfortunately, that didn’t get passed because the city council thought that our youth voices weren’t a priority, and I think yesterday was direct evidence that our voices are a priority. We are listening, but we’re also ready to take action when needed.”

Video highlights from student walkout & vigil held May 16 & 17, 2022. Production by Max Zlochiver. Additional video by Sylvia Xu.

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