February 2012
January 31, 2012

Standing up against teacher's unfair firing

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United

Jillian Haag could not have asked for more from her job as a teacher at Evergreen Charter School in Hempstead.

She cared deeply for her students, and the passion she had for her work also made her popular with parents. Meanwhile — impressed with her job performance and success building relationships in the community — administrators at the start of school in September told Haag she would now be in charge of overseeing Evergreen's special-education curriculum.

"Evergreen was a dream to work at. It was like being with your family all day. I loved my students and I received amazing support from the parents," said Haag, who after splitting last year between first-grade and special education, was thrilled with her new responsibilities at the school. "I was so excited to have the year under way."

But the year for which Haag had so much hope — (after all, besides the success she was experiencing in her career, she was pregnant with her first child) — soon turned into a year she never could have imagined.

A change in administration at the school led eventually to a decision by staff to organize. Meetings were held, union cards were signed, and a mission statement was drafted and sent to school board members' homes.

Haag, whose work history was exemplary and who had never been the subject of disciplinary action since being hired in 2009, emerged as a leader in the fledgling Evergreen Charter Staff Association. She soon began to fall out of favor with the school's administration and board.

Haag was warned by school Principal Maritza Meyers to tone down her public support for the union. And Board President Gil Bernardino ordered the school's custodian to keep track of Haag's every move. Surveillance cameras were even installed in the ceiling of Haag's classroom when she wasn't there.

The harassment culminated in the worst way possible. On Dec. 3, Haag received a letter at her home from the board informing her she had been fired. Her termination came just four days before she gave birth to her daughter — healthy 6 lb. 11 oz., Rae Federica.

"I never thought it would come to this," Haag said. "It knocked the wind out of me."

During her first two years at Evergreen, Haag said there existed a strong and open relationship between administration and staff.

Haag said the school's former principal, Rosa Escoto, was always interested in hearing from teachers. The prior administration also protected teachers from board politics and bureaucracy so that they could concentrate on educating students.

With Escoto's departure, staff decided to approach the school's board in June to express concerns about security, competitive pay and professional development. Haag was selected to speak at that meeting on her colleagues' behalf.

"It became clear that our voice would not be heard, and the board would act without concern for neither staff nor parents," she said, explaining the eventual decision by teachers to organize.

On Sept. 24, the staff's first organizing meeting was held. Almost immediately, the administration's attitude toward Haag changed. Nowhere was that more evident than an Oct. 19 meeting with Meyers to discuss Haag's requested maternity leave. Meyers told Haag that if she wanted her leave approved, she should not be so "vocal" in support of a union, adding she should not provide the board with any reason to deny her request.

"That meeting was definitely a turning point," Haag said. "I knew they were cold hearted, but I didn't know they were that cold hearted."

Mistreatment toward Haag increased significantly in November. Meyers essentially stopped publicly acknowledging Haag and would not answer her emails. Her requests for professional development opportunities were denied.

Other teachers were interrogated by administration regarding Haag's job performance. Haag also learned from the school's former financial director that Evergreen's custodian was ordered to spy on her. And, upon returning one afternoon from a lunch meeting, she found surveillance cameras installed in the ceiling of her classroom.

"That was so upsetting, I'll never forget it," Haag said. "What really got me was that it was such a tremendous waste of money. I remember thinking: We have these children with all these needs; that money could have gone elsewhere."

On Nov. 29, Haag was presented with a disciplinary letter claiming she had been absent and/or late to some classes on several occassions and that she was not in compliance on the development of student Individualized Education Programs. Haag, however, said she kept her own paperwork that could document both her whereabouts on the days in question and that the IEP-compliance charges were inaccurate. She noted, too, that the letter made no mention of her union activities.

"It was just a cover," she said of the charges, "so that they could keep a paper trail on me."

Less than a week after receiving the discipline letter, Haag was fired for reasons that school officials claim were based on professional performance. She immediately contacted NYSUT. The union filed an improper practice charge against Evergreen Charter School with the state Public Employment Relations Board claiming Evergreen violated the state's Taylor Law. A meeting with PERB held Jan. 25 did not produce any resolution. Meanwhile, a rally held that same day drew more than 200 supporters from six different school districts, including parents, teachers and students.

The Evergreen Charter Staff Association has since won voluntary recognition, and the union hopes to soon have in place its first collective-bargaining agreement.

"I will always support the teachers at Evergreen," said Haag, whose union-led fight challenging her dismissal includes a bid for reinstatement. "I feel like I built a family there."