Why the Courage of Dr. Virginia Barden Matters
by Lynne Winderbaum
March 19 marked 4 years since 400 of us rallied against the abusive behavior of Iris Blige the “leader” who never taught a class herself and holds no teaching certification. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GsiWBO4AI4
I never thought that I’d be sitting here in 2013 and still writing about the injustice of keeping Iris Blige in a position of authority.
The catalyst that sparked the rally was the removal of beloved teacher Raqnel James. Ms. James was a veteran, tenured teacher with an unblemished satisfactory record. But she was more than satisfactory–she was dedicated to her students and one of their favorites. But Ms. James took one of Blige’s friends, Raquel Pottinger-Bird to court for being in arrears on rent owed to her. Pottinger-Bird was given a job by Iris Blige at Fordham Arts after being disciplined in Georgia for complicity in irregularities during standardized testing. Sheet1 – Macon.com The problem for Blige was that Ms. James had tenure. So how to get rid of her? One day Blige produced a letter threatening her life and the life of her child that she claimed was left for her by James. In this way, James could be criminally charged, deported to Jamaica, and out of Blige’s and Pottinger-Bird’s lives. Fortunately, James was granted permanent residence in the US and after three years of inexplicable postponements in the Bronx Criminal Court and three years of being out of work, she was finally found not guilty in December, 2011. There was never any evidence against her and why the case was not immediately dismissed is an interesting question that ties to why Iris Blige still gets away with this misbehavior. Interesting also is why there were no perjury charges forthcoming against Blige based on the sworn testimony about the alleged letter from the assistant principal who purportedly “found” the letter. James is now teaching again at a different school.
The Office of Special Investigations looked into charges that Ms. Blige threatened to withhold the diplomas of any students who participated into the after-school demonstration protesting the removal of Ms. James and abuse at the hands of Blige. She was also banning them from all senior activities. Blige had students pulled out of class and threatened with suspension. One was removed as editor of the school newspaper. The UFT obtained the names of 19 of these students and gave them to Investigator Robert Smalls. It was a clear violation of Chancellor’s Regulation A-421 prohibiting language that caused emotional distress. And these kids were frightened and crying when I spoke to them. There was no action by the Department of Education.
Since the time of the demonstration Iris Blige has been found guilty by the Department of Education of ordering her administrators to hand out career-threatening unsatisfactory ratings to teachers she wanted to remove before they ever observed their teaching! Their punishing rating was predetermined. For this dishonesty and abuse of power she was fined a mere $7500 and allowed to keep her job. That’s the price of ruined careers. http://gothamschools.org/2011/01/21/bronx-principal-keeps-her-job-after-imperiling-the-jobs-of-others/comment-page-1/
Rosa Hidalgo crossed paths with Iris Blige at a job fair one summer. Ms. Hidalgo had a young daughter but was willing to leave a successful administrative career in the private sector to “give back” to her community and become a teacher. Blige personally recruited her at the job fair and Hidalgo accepted a position. For two years and ten months (out of the required three probationary years) she was a satisfactory teacher. She had 100% passing rates for her students on the Spanish Regents. She took professional development classes on her own time and loved her job. As time for her tenure decision grew close, she was suddenly found unsatisfactory and had her probation discontinued. In layman’s terms, she was fired. I testified at her appeal of the firing. The reason Blige gave was that Hidalgo was not properly teaching a certain special education student in her class. At the hearing it came out that not only that student, but a dozen special education students were put in Hidalgo’s mainstream class by Blige in total violation of their IEPs and their rights to smaller classes and additional trained personnel in the classroom. The panel voted unanimously to overturn the discontinuance and return Ms. Hidalgo to her job. Again, one can ask how these things happen but the Superintendent, Elena Papaliberios, overturned the unanimous decision of the panel and upheld the termination of Ms. Hidalgo. Another loved and dedicated teacher removed. Her crime? She joined Dr. Virginia Barden on a UFT chapter committee. Union activity does not bring job security to a probationary teacher.
Blige’s school has received four years of A ratings, whatever that arbitrary figure has come to represent. But be it noted that the assistant principal who reported irregularities on Regents exams to the OSI was also removed and transferred out right after the investigators came to the school.
There are so many other stories and some of the teacher-victims bravely spoke in the video of the rally linked above.
Throughout it all, Iris Blige felt threatened by the Union and the climate of fear at Fordham Arts made it hard to find a strong figure to stand up for the suffering teachers. The first chapter leader, Rick Coscia, was also a well-loved teacher. Coming to the school with him for his hearing was like returning with a rock-star. Blige had him removed on mysterious charges and he spent two years out of the classroom. Lacking evidence of anything other than Iris Blige’s unsupported cheating allegation which was recanted by the assistant principal who was forced to “document” it, Coscia was finally and just as mysteriously released from captivity to resume his successful career at another school. One chapter leader disposed of! The next chapter leader was so afraid of Blige that when he wanted to file a grievance against her for a contract violation, he begged me to do it as UFT District Representative. When Dr. Virginia Barden became chapter leader, Blige met her match. Barden was fearless and stood up for her terrorized members. So Blige put her in a closet. Now she is another chapter leader who now has been removed as well. But Blige and her tyranny go on.
[Lynne Winderbaum, retired ESL teacher from JFK, longtime Chapter Leader, and through much of the Bloomberg years, our Bronx UFT HS District Representative, fought tirelessly against bullies like Blige.]