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Queens charter fight flares as parents, teachers turn on board

A teacher contract fight at Merrick Academy Charter School has expanded into a dispute over the school’s financial and physical conditions.

Emails sent to GothamSchools offer a window into a school where parents, teachers, and board members are locked in a bitter fight, trading accusations about mismanagement, ceiling leaks, and an alleged lack of textbooks. Problems began late last year when teachers and union officials accused the charter school’s board of spending millions of dollars on a for-profit management organization, Victory Schools.

Now, teachers and parents are blaming the board for shortchanging students on classroom supplies and not making needed repairs. In response, the board is accusing teachers of fabricating the problems. Meanwhile, the school’s founding principal has left suddenly, citing personal reasons.

In 2007, an overwhelming majority of teachers at Merrick Academy voted to make the United Federation of Teachers their exclusive bargaining agent, but since then the UFT and school’s board have yet to reach a contract agreement. Last December, UFT officials held a news conference in front of the school to protest its contract with Victory Schools.

Kenneth Eriabadour, who has two children in the K-6 school, said he’s concerned about financial mismanagement.

“The school has no adequate heat, all the roofs are leaking,” he said. “There are no books, there are no materials for these children to study with. I used to go to Wal-Mart and get papers and pencils to send to school every week. Where is all the money going?”

Parents have been lodging their complaints with SUNY Charter Institute, which authorized the school and is tasked with its oversight.

Executive director of the institute, Jonas Chartock, said the institute forwarded parents’ complaints to the school’s board.

“The Institute was satisfied that the school had taken appropriate measures to address relatively common issues for school buildings — the temporary use of supplemental heaters when the furnace was being repaired and for classrooms where the existing heating system is now insufficient were installed and the school is working through appropriate channels to have the leak issues addressed,” he wrote in an email.

Interim principal Carolyn Thomas directed calls about the school to board president Gerald Karikari, who did not return calls for comment.

Opened in 2000, Merrick Academy’s founding board included Congressman Gregory Meeks and State Senate President Malcolm Smith, both of whom have left the board. Smith’s former business partner, Darryl Greene, still sits on Merrick’s board. In 1999, Greene was convicted of stealing half a million dollars from city agencies and, earlier this month, he backed out of business ties he had with the company selected to run a video slot machine parlor at Aqueduct Raceway.

The Department of Education’s charter school office has little contact with Merrick leaders, as the school is authorized by SUNY and leases its own building.

Here’s the email Jonas Chartock, executive director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, sent to me:

The Institute was informed in writing yesterday that Merrick’s principal was taking an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons. Long time assistant principal Carolyn Thomas has been named interim principal.

In the past two months, the Institute has received several complaints funneled through a small group of individuals in the school community. The Institute also received a letter of complaint from UFT President Michael Mulgrew. Prior to this period, the Institute had received few if any complaints about the school.

Per our policy, we referred all complaints to the school and its board of Trustees, with the exception of those involving the health and safety of students. An issue was brought to our attention regarding a heating problem and a leaking roof. The Institute’s Vice President and General Counsel spoke with the school’s board chair, a member of the board, the head of the parent teacher association, and the school’s principal. The Institute was satisfied that the school had taken appropriate measures to address relatively common issues for school buildings — the temporary use of supplemental heaters when the furnace was being repaired and for classrooms where the existing heating system is now insufficient were installed and the school is working through appropriate channels to have the leak issues addressed.

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