Despite pleas from students and teachers, the Hudson County Schools of Technology board voted not to renew the contract of a popular High Tech High School music teacher – which came after a vice principal had threatened to call the sheriff’s office on students silently protesting.
Prior to Friday’s board meeting, students peacefully protested the possibility of Jacob Lawson, a teacher in the Performing Arts department, specializing in the Music and Audio Tech track, being ousted.
According to audio obtained by HCV, High Tech Vice Principal William Mattei threatened to call the sheriff’s office on students who would not go back to class.
“You have five minutes to decide to go back to class,” he says in a portion of the recording.
“If I have to bring the sheriff’s officers in here to arrest each and every one of you for causing this disturbance I will. Okay? Yes, I will.”
HCST spokeswoman Caitlin Mota said that students had been warned previously not to block the main entrance since it was a fire hazard and that the district was “taking appropriate action” for Mattei reacting the way he did.
“Unfortunately, an employee of the district used a poor choice of words in asking students to leave the hallway. His statement in no way reflects the mission of HCST and the administration is already taking appropriate action.”
As for Lawson, the board voted 8-0(1), with Trustee Keri Eglentowicz abstaining, to lay him off as of February 1, causing many students and parents in the overcrowded HCST board conference room to ask them about the fate of the performing arts department.
While pleading with the board prior to the vote, Lawson noted that he was told by the school’s principal, Dr. Joseph Giammarella, as well as HCST Superintendent of Schools Amy Lin-Rodriguez, that the decision to dismiss him was the result of a financial analysis.
When he asked for that financial analysis, he was told that his department is made up of only 52 students and two teachers, including himself.
“This statement is unclear for two reasons: the student/teacher ratio, and, second, it insinuates that I’m only responsible for the education of 26 students. This is incorrect and very misleading,” said Lawson.
In an interview, he said he interacts with students in all of the department’s disciplines, including dance, drama and musical theatre.
Student after student, and parent and after parent, spoke in defense of Lawson and questioned why did he just get his dismissal notification on Monday when a teacher who isn’t expected to return in the fall typically receives a notification in May or June.
One parent whose son attends High Tech, Gerry Rosales, said she didn’t want to personally attack the board, but continued that if they are paying two superintendent salaries of about $250,000 each (former Superintendent Frank Gargiulo is being paid through the end of the year), it would have enough money to retain Lawson.
In response, Lin-Rodriguez was quick to rebuff the notion that the district wants to downsize the Performing Arts Department.
“As far as the administration wants to kill the program, that is the furthest from the truth. What we are doing is restructuring, as a district overall, we are restructuring the majority of our programs, and lot of it, unfortunately, is due to budgetary constraints that nobody at this table has control over,” she explained.
In the interview with Lawson, he expressed frustration with the process.
“My reaction is that I am saddened that my argument…that their rationale that they have given and the reasoning that I was given does not hold water. They said it was a student to faculty ratio, which was a financial decision. But I demonstrated that I interact with many more students than that ratio would suggest, and so factually I am financially relevant, if that’s the correct phrase,” said Lawson.
A district source with knowledge of the situation, who spoke under the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak on the matter, said that Lawson was given an offer to keep his job if he choose to work on a new flex schedule (meaning starting and leaving work at later hours) but he declined.