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Long IslandSuffolk

Ex-Riverhead Charter School trustee files $15M defamation suit alleging improper removal

The Riverhead Charter School is located on Middle

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

A former Riverhead Charter School trustee has filed a $15 million lawsuit in federal court against the school's current trustees and administrators, alleging she was improperly removed from her post and had faced harassment, defamation and violation of her constitutional rights.

Renee Harris-Thompson of Riverhead filed the legal action in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Sept. 12.

She was removed from the five-member board in May, the lawsuit says. She had been a trustee at the K-8 charter school in Calverton since May 2011, elected by other board members to a three-year term.

Harris-Thompson and her attorney, Harriet Gilliam of Riverhead, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

The charter school's attorney, Richard Zuckerman of Melville, vigorously denied all the claims.

"This is a pure money grab," he said last week.

In court papers, Harris-Thompson alleges that some school officials, including Principal Raymond Ankrum, defamed and harassed her and violated her First Amendment rights. She also names board of trustees president Zenobia Hartfield and the school's attorney, Sharon Berlin, in the lawsuit.

Claims retaliation

Harris-Thompson claims in court papers she was retaliated against for complaining to the New York State Charter School Office. She alleges she was targeted for removing her son from the school and placing him in public school.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are created by parents, educators and community leaders and operate under a five-year contract, or charter. In addition to Riverhead, there are four other such schools on Long Island -- two in Hempstead, one in Roosevelt and one in Wainscott.

The schools' students are required to take all state tests, and the institutions must comply with laws on health, safety, civil rights and special education.

The New York State Education Department Charter School Office monitors the Riverhead Charter School.

In court papers, Harris-Thompson said she was duly elected and certified as a trustee in May 2011.

Riverhead Charter School trustees appoint or elect their own board members, who must be approved by the state, Zuckerman said.

Harris-Thompson said that in spring 2013 she alerted board officials of "improprieties," alleging there was improper changing of the school's organizational structure, misuse of the personnel budget, elimination of a key educational program and violation of laws regarding special education students.

Reinstated a month later

Soon after she brought these complaints, the lawsuit says, the board held a meeting in September 2013 that she alleges violated the state's Open Meetings Law, and four trustees voted to remove her from the board. She was reinstated to the board the next month.

Upon rejoining the board, she was ignored and faced visible hostility, she alleges in the lawsuit. She said she faced verbal attacks from Ankrum, with him accusing her "of being on the side of the teachers in an ongoing improper practice dispute," the court papers say.

Earlier this year, two unrelated complaints filed with a state employment board said that administrators at Riverhead Charter School, including Ankrum, tried to bust its teachers union, pressed staff to dismantle the group and fired three employees because of their loyalty to it. School officials have denied the allegations.

The board voted in May not to renew Harris-Thompson's term. She claimed in court papers that this "departed from the past practice of automatic renewal."

Zuckerman, however, said Harris-Thompson had approved a change to the charter school's bylaws that required her to leave the board when her term ended.

Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said state officials cannot comment on pending litigation.

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