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Charter school fires teacher who is union leader

Kasey Wehrheim, of Centereach, on May 27, 2014.

Kasey Wehrheim, of Centereach, on May 27, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Riverhead Charter School officials said Tuesday they were justified in firing the head of the local teachers union this month, though critics said her dismissal marked another example of union-busting at the Calverton campus.

Kasey Wehrheim, 30 and a teacher for eight years, started working at Riverhead Charter in 2008. School officials, citing privacy issues, declined to elaborate on her firing May 14.

But Wehrheim said she was let go following two unrelated classroom safety issues -- problems she said any teacher could have faced.

Wehrheim, who was a second-grade teacher, has been head of the union for the past three years. She believes she was unfairly targeted because of her role in the union and that the safety issues were used as an excuse.

Sharon Berlin, an attorney for the school, said Wehrheim's dismissal "had nothing to do with her union membership."

Principal Raymond Ankrum referred all questions to Berlin.

Wehrheim, in an interview Tuesday, said the first incident occurred in October, when a kindergartner ingested Borax, a soapy compound the teacher said she accidentally left out on a table after an experiment with her own students.

The child's parents said she vomited because of it, the teacher said.

Wehrheim said administrators started investigating the Borax incident in December, two months after it happened, and only after she had refused Ankrum's numerous requests that she call a meeting to ask teachers to dismantle the union.

In the second case, Wehrheim said she allowed a student with an egg allergy to handle an egg during a May 1 lecture about chickens.

Wehrheim said she was aware of the allergy, but thought it would be triggered only if the student ate the egg. The child suffered itchy eyes and was treated with over-the-counter medication, she said.

Wehrheim said she had wanted to become a teacher since she was in the fifth grade and she's heartbroken to have left her students before the end of the school year.

"Riverhead Charter School was my life," she said, adding that she frequently has paid for needy students' clothing, shoes and lunch.

New York State United Teachers already has filed complaints against the school with the state Public Employment Relations Board, saying administrators have fired other employees since December for their union loyalty.

The group also claims teachers were pressured during on-campus meetings in December and since held by administrators to dismantle the union.

School officials have denied all those allegations.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT, said the union will file a complaint on Wehrheim's behalf.

"We are going to fight to have her returned to her job," Korn said, saying her dismissal was "part of a pattern of union-busting that has no place in New York State. It is ludicrous to suggest that any teacher would knowingly endanger a child by exposing them to an allergen."Riverhead Charter serves 295 students in kindergarten through the seventh grade and has about 40 teachers.

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