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Complaint: Riverhead charter school tried to bust teachers union

The Riverhead Charter School is located on Middle

The Riverhead Charter School is located on Middle Country Road in Calverton, seen here on Thursday, April 10, 2014. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Administrators at the Riverhead Charter School tried to bust its teachers union, pressed staff to dismantle the group and fired three employees because of their loyalty to it, according to two complaints filed with a state employment board.

School officials denied the allegations.

Raymond Ankrum, the Calverton school's principal, said he is "indifferent" to the union and that he never tried to dissolve it.

The first "improper practice charge," filed in February by New York State United Teachers with the Public Employment Relations Board, describes a climate of intimidation at the school.

It alleges that the school hosted an on-campus meeting Dec. 6 asking teachers how they felt about the local union. Jaclyn Scoglio-Walsh, a teacher and clinical social worker who had taught there for more than six years, spoke up in favor of the chapter, saying it was a good resource for teachers who need to file grievances.

She was fired two weeks later, with school administrators saying she used her cellphone during work hours, the complaint said. The complaint notes that cellphone use is permitted at the school as part of a policy established in 2013 to address student behavior.

Ankrum acknowledged the program, but said the teacher's phone use did not match up with entries to the system about students.

NYSUT filed a second improper practice charge March 27 concerning the termination of two more teachers.

One was fired in February after having spoken favorably about the union at a January staff meeting and another was let go in March after refusing to sign an anti-union petition presented to him by an administrator, the filing said.

The first improper practice charge is scheduled for a May 7 conference. If the parties involved cannot reach a voluntary resolution, a formal hearing before an administrative law judge would be held, and the judge would issue a decision.

The employment relations board has not formally accepted NYSUT's second filing, so it has not been assigned to an administrative law judge.

Scoglio-Walsh, who was teaching fifth grade when she was fired, wants to be reinstated. She earned $47,000 per year, she said.She said she wishes to be back in her classroom. She and her husband don't have children, she said, so her students were like family.

Scoglio-Walsh said she spent months in each of the past several years choreographing school productions -- time for which she was not paid. In spring 2011, students donned zombie makeup and tattered clothing for a "Thriller" routine inspired by Michael Jackson's classic 1980s hit.

"I did not deserve to lose my job," she said.

The charter school, founded in 2001, serves 295 children in kindergarten through seventh grade. It has 40 teachers.

State Department of Education records show the teacher turnover rate was 29 percent in the 2010-11 school year, the last year the data were available. Teachers union officials said the figure is high compared with noncharter public schools on the Island, where the rate is closer to 10 percent.

Ankrum attributed the turnover to the demanding workload, saying more is expected of charter teachers and that they are paid less than those in noncharter schools.

"They are getting students who are historically disenfranchised, years below grade level, and you have to put in extra work to get them where they need to be," he said, adding that teachers burn out in the process.

Fifty-nine percent of the school's students were eligible for free lunch and 16 percent were categorized as limited in English proficiency in 2011-12, state records show.

While Long Island has only a handful of charters, New York City has 183, serving about 5 percent of its children. Most city charters don't have unions; NYSUT, the state's largest teachers union, represents only 30 charter schools across the state.

"Based on some of the documentary evidence and the testimony, this is one of the worst instances of anti-union practices that I have seen in my career," said Peter Verdon, staff director for Suffolk NYSUT. "And I have been doing this for 20 years."

In addition, NYSUT filed a contract grievance for Scoglio-Walsh with the Riverhead Charter school board. It will be decided by an arbitrator.

"We always look to work together with management when we can -- and there is a history of that happening there," Verdon said. "Unfortunately, management has gone down a path that I'm confident violates the law and is hurtful to everyone."


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