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Riverhead Charter School under fire for 'union-busting,' according to NYSUT improper labor practice charge

Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum Sr. outside the school last March. (RiverheadLOCAL file photo by Peter Blasl)Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum Sr. outside the school last March. (RiverheadLOCAL file photo by Peter Blasl)
New York State United Teachers has filed an improper labor practice charge against the Riverhead Charter School, accusing the school's principal and administration of union-busting.

The complaint, filed with the Public Employees Relations Board last month, accuses Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum Sr. and the administration of using intimidation, threats and firings to destabilize the relationship between the union and its members, in a systematic effort to get the union at the school decertified by state labor officials.

The school administration has called "professional development" teacher meetings on campus to ask teachers how they feel about the union and it circulated a petition among teachers, on campus and during school hours, supporting union decertification, according to the complaint. Those meetings and the petition violate the state Public Employees Fair Employment Act, the complaint states.

Jaclyn Scoglio-Walsh, a teacher who voiced support of the union during one such meeting on Dec. 6 was fired two weeks later, according to the complaint. Scoglio-Walsh, an eight-year veteran teacher at the school who maintained the highest student achievement grades for the past five years, had been named "teacher of the year" for the current academic year, according to the complaint.

The day she was fired, a union decertification petition was filed by a member of the school's leadership team with the Public Employees Relations Board.

Scoglio-Walsh was one of five RCS teachers fired since September, according to former Riverhead Charter School teacher Mary Ellen Weaver, who resigned last year after teaching four years at the school.

Two additional improper practice charges have since been filed by the union but have not yet been processed and accepted by PERB, Weaver said. One centers on the firing of a teacher the day after he vocalized support for Scoglio-Walsh in response to questioning by Ankrum, she said. The two recent complaints are not yet public documents because PERB has not yet determined whether they would be accepted them for processing.

"There's been a campaign on the part of the administration to intimidate and discourage people from joining the union and to bust the union," Peter Verdon, regional staff director of the NYSUT Local 22170 said this week. "This is a classic textbook example of why in 2014 people need unions."

The Riverhead Charter School Employees Association, is a member of New York State United Teachers. RCS was the first charter school in the state to be union-organized, Verdon said.

"We've reached out [to the administration] but whenever we do, people get fired," Verdon said. "That's why we're taking this action before PERB," he said.

"We've heard from former parents. We've begun to hear from former employees. It's
heartbreaking the treatment people have been subjected to," Verdon said.

RCS principal Raymond Ankrum Sr. during the March 11 Board of Trustees meeting. (RiverheadLOCAL photo by Denise Civiletti)RCS principal Raymond Ankrum Sr. during the March 11 Board of Trustees meeting. (RiverheadLOCAL photo by Denise Civiletti)Ankrum declined comment for this story, referring RiverheadLOCAL to the school's attorney, Sharon Berlin, a partner in the Melville law firm of Lamb and Barnosky.

"It's a lot easier to throw stuff against the wall than it is to make it stick," Berlin said. "There are a lot of things being thrown around out there." She declined further comment due to pendency of the litigation.

Weaver, who now teaches at a charter school in Roosevelt, and a group of former teachers who either resigned or were fired by Ankrum since he was hired as principal in 2012, are in regular contact with each other and with teachers who remain on staff at the charter school.

Teachers who still have their jobs at RCS live in fear of losing them, Weaver said.

Ankrum regularly reminds his teaching staff that he can fire them at will under the school's collective bargaining agreement with the union, she said. That power comes from the fact that the majority of the RCS teachers — 16 of the 35 teachers on staff at the start of this school year — are new hires and most of them are inexperienced, according to a March 10 State Education Department charter school renewal recommendation report. All of the new hires have less than three years' experience and 11 are in their first year of teaching, according to the report.

"It's one of the worst instances of union animus and intimidation of employees I've seen in my 15-year-plus career," NYSUT's Verdon said.

The improper practice complaint will be assigned to an administrative law judge who will schedule a conference, most likely in May, Verdon said.

SED report: concerns over environment, governance of RCS

The school's charter was up for renewal this June. The SED recommended a three-year renewal, though in its report it cited concerns about falling proficiency scores, high teacher turnover rates, teacher inexperience, the effectiveness of its board of trustees and tensions among stakeholders at the school.

Ankrum himself filed a complaint against the school's board of trustees on Oct. 21 last year, according to the SED report. His "complaint memo highlighted a growing level of distrust between school administrators and the Board of Trustees and laid out a series of concerns," the report says. Ankrum told state regulators on Dec. 13 "his concerns have been addressed." The report did not elaborate on the principal's complaint or its resolution.

The board was criticized by Weaver and others during interviews as "dysfunctional." Though the SED renewal report did not use that word to describe the board, which has also had a "significant turnover" during its most recent five-year charter term, it described board behavior that violated state laws and the school's own charter and bylaws.

"The board does not act in accordance with some laws, regulations, rules and other school-specific policies," the report said. It has taken actions without having a quorum present, has improperly dismissed a board member in violation of the Charter School Act and has violated the state's Open Meetings Law, conducting large portions of its meetings in lengthy executive sessions, making it "challenging for parents and community members to remain informed," and discouraging stakeholders from attending board meetings, the report said.

The board has also made "a material change to its charter" by altering its mission statement without prior Board of Regents approval, the renewal report said.

Ankrum has never had a performance review by the Board of Trustees in his 20-month tenure as RCS principal, according to the SED renewal recommendation report.

"The goals that were created by the school leader [Ankrum] have also not been approved by the board, making it difficult for the school to operate with a clear vision and direction," the SED report said.

It continues: "While the board has established some goals outside of academic performance, such as the expansion of the school’s grade levels and building of the new facility. The board was previously operating without an annual calendar, but this calendar was approved at the December 2013 meeting. The board has not engaged in strategic planning, nor have they shown evidence that initiatives have launched as a result of planning." Nor does the board evaluate its own effectiveness, according to the report.

"Half of the current board members are new to the board and were appointed in the middle of the current charter term," the report stated.

Riverhead Charter School Board of Trustees during its March 11 meeting. (RiverheadLOCAL photo by Denise Civiletti) Riverhead Charter School Board of Trustees during its March 11 meeting. (RiverheadLOCAL photo by Denise Civiletti) Only two of the current board members, former charter school parent Susan Heintz, who has been on the board since the school opened in 2001, and Calverton businessman Harry Histand, who joined the board in 2003, are not in their first term on the board. Board president Zenobia Hartfield, a NYC lawyer, was appointed to a three-year term in 2013. vice-chairperson Emma Klimek and member Angela Hughes both joined the board in 2012. Renee Thompson, board secretary, was appointed to the board in 2011. The board may have up to nine members and it is currently seeking to add to its ranks. At the March 11 board meeting, conducted in the administration office conference room, the board approved the appointment of Anthony Coates as a trustee.

The board oversees the charter school's $3.83 million dollar budget.

The Riverhead Charter School opened in September 2001 with an enrollment of 250 students in grades K-5. It revised its charter to add grade 6 in 2003 and again in 2013 to add grades 7 and 8, increasing its maximum enrollment to 414 students.

Earlier this month the Board of Regents renewed the school's charter through June 30, 2017.

The charter school is currently pursuing a $16.5 million construction project to replace its existing modular building with a two-story, 30,128-square-foot modular building that will better accommodate its expanded student body.

At its March 11 meeting, convened in the cramped conference room of the RCS administration building, members of the construction management team from School Construction Consultants, told the board they expect construction to be completed on schedule by Dec. 1, despite weather-related setbacks this winter.

Former teacher seeks investigation and answers 

During the same meeting, Weaver read into the record a letter expressing her concerns, which included allegations of the principal and dean of students viewing pornography on their computers in a school office during school hours. She asked for a full investigation of the incident by the board, whose members listened to her remarks without reaction and offered no response.

Weaver also complained about the handling of an investigation into a lengthy complaint she filed with the board last April, "regarding board governance, and sexual harassment, hostility and bullying of the staff at the hands of the principal" and complaining of numerous violations of the school's charter and bylaws, as well as state laws by the board and the administration.

Weaver told the board she never received a determination on her complaint until October, when she requested it. She was then sent a letter informing her that her complaint was deemed without merit. Weaver said she requested findings of fact in support of the determination, but no findings were provided.

"I am formally requesting that the findings of fact be provided to me within the next 15 business days," Weaver told the board, reading from a letter she delivered to them that evening.

The board has not yet responded to her complaints or provided the findings of fact she requested two weeks ago, Weaver said yesterday.

Weaver, of Baiting Hollow, said she and others support the Riverhead Charter School but not its administration or governing body.

"It's a great school and we want to see it thrive," Weaver said. "But with current leadership and governance, it is on course for certain failure."

She said as a Riverhead taxpayer she is also concerned about the charter school's debt burden should the school fail. "Will that become the responsibility of Riverhead taxpayers?" she asked.

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