July 2014
July 03, 2014

NYSUT battles union busting tactics at Long Island school

Author: By Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
rally for riverhead teachers
Caption: NYSUT members from 19 Suffolk County locals rally in support of their union colleagues at Riverhead Charter School. Photo by Jonathan Fickies.

Jaclyn Scoglio-Walsh was a star.

For five years running, her students topped the charts for achievement at the Riverhead Charter School in Calverton on Long Island. She was recognized for traveling to help children in Haiti and using that experience to broaden her students' education. The school community was her "family," and she worked nights and weekends on arts programs and test preparation.

At a back-to-school professional day in September 2013, second-year Principal Ray Ankrum named her the school's "teacher of the year."

Yet when Scoglio-Walsh praised her union at a staff development session last December, little did she know how prophetic her words would be.

Ankrum's agenda called for a discussion of the Riverhead Charter School Employees Association and whether members support it. "The union is a great resource, especially when assisting members who need to file grievances," Scoglio-Walsh responded.

Two weeks later the "teacher of the year" was fired.

Scoglio-Walsh was not the first, nor would she be the last. Since January, five more union-leading or union-leaning staffers have been terminated. Many more have kept their jobs only by renouncing the union.

"This is one of the worst instances of anti-union practice that I have seen in my career," said Peter Verdon, staff director of NYSUT's Suffolk Regional Office. "And I've been doing this for 20 years."

NYSUT has filed grievances and improper labor practice complaints with the Public Employment Relations Board over the firings and other anti-union practices. Hearings are delayed in a jurisdictional dispute and won't happen before 2015.

Independent charter school employees don't have the due process protections — like tenure and 3020-a procedures — regular school district teachers have under state education law. That fact alone stresses why a local collective bargaining agreement is essential.

"Workers deserve to exercise their rights in the workplace. Whether in a regular public school or a charter school, we believe in collective bargaining and standing up to bullies who make arbitrary and capricious decisions for the sake of repressing the teachers' voices in the classroom," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale.

Pecorale was among hundreds of pickets at a June rally in front of the rural school campus. Members from 19 Suffolk County NYSUT locals lined the country road and held signs of support for the 40-member Riverhead Charter School EA.

"Being in the union shouldn't get you fired," said Lisa Goulding, president of the neighboring Riverhead Central Faculty Association. "That's what is happening here."

Said Beth Dimino, president of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association: "We will stand together to protect all our sisters and brothers, no matter where they work."

Teachers at the Riverhead Charter School came to NYSUT 10 years ago wanting to organize, and their school became the first charter to unionize in the state.

Early on, RCSEA won a significant contract provision that says a person being terminated has a right to a hearing if they file a grievance after the termination has taken effect. That differs from a section of education law that covers regular public school employees guaranteeing a hearing before a termination can take place. Nonetheless, it does offer an employee the right to be heard.

Former teachers maintain the trouble at Riverhead Charter School began when Ankrum, who also is executive director, arrived in the summer of 2012. He made it his mission to split the staff — saying if you're with the union, you're against him. He told new staffers they did not have to join the union, and essentially directed them not to.

Terminated staffers say he exploited a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that calls for a school leadership team that includes members of the bargaining unit. He stacked the team with a cadre of his friends and supporters who bad-mouthed union reps and aggressively pushed to decertify the association altogether.

Scoglio-Walsh was a vocal union supporter, always had been, and wasn't the only person who spoke up.

When one of Ankrum's "leadership team" members criticized NYSUT, teacher Donna Ruddy quickly defended the statewide union. This spring, she was fired.

Another teacher, Brandon Lloyd, was approached by a "leadership team" member who said he was required to sign a petition to decertify the union. "Isn't this illegal?" he asked. Later, he did sign the petition under heavy pressure. Three months later, the known union supporter was fired, anyway.

Ray Patuano, like Lloyd a first-year teacher, spoke up in favor of the union at a meeting scheduled by the "leadership team" last January. He was later fired.

At that same meeting, Andrea Van Epps felt implicitly accused of "taking notes and telling NYSUT." The next day, Ankrum told the 12-year veteran speech pathologist her position would not be renewed next year.

Kasey Wehrheim, an RCS teacher for six years and the union president for most of the past three, was fired in May, ostensibly for two minor safety incidents.

"Riverhead Charter School was my life," she said. "I would love to have my job back, but I wouldn't go back there under Ray Ankrum."

She had been a "house leader" for K-3 as well as union president when Ankrum arrived.

"I had a hard time playing the role of house leader and union president," she said. "He wanted the leadership people to be his. He said 'you can't be loyal to the union, you have to be loyal to me.' He put us in such uncomfortable situations." Wehrheim said.

A year ago, Ankrum told teacher and union rep Lacey Branker to either resign her union post at the end of the year, or "you will end up being terminated," Wehrheim said. "She refused to resign and he terminated her."

This ultimatum later pushed others to abandon their union positions as officers and reps. "And they all still have their jobs," she said.

Since Wehrheim was fired, no union officers or reps remain in the school. She was the last to go.

The statewide union is committed to the uphill fight for this local.

"NYSUT will always support those who have their voices diminished by outside forces," Pecorale said. "It is wrong to fire people because they believe in a union, and this cannot stand."