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After union bid, fired charter school teachers allege retaliation

Earlier this year, a small group of determined teachers at Opportunity Charter School marched into Leonard Goldberg’s office and confronted their boss.

They carried a letter that detailed their complaints with Goldberg’s response to their recent bid to unionize. Not only had Goldberg refused to recognize the staff’s vote to join the United Federation of Teachers, they said, he had begun waging an anti-union email campaign.

Goldberg, the school’s CEO, declined the letter and ordered them to leave, according to a teacher present at the meeting.

“He was screaming and yelling,” said the teacher. “He said ‘You’re not welcome in here,’ and threw us out of the office.”

By the end of the school year, that teacher and 13 of her pro-union colleagues – as well as one who opposed the union – were notified that their contracts would not be renewed. Five, including the teacher who described the Goldberg meeting, were members of the organizing committee that steered the union vote.

The school says it is a coincidence, but former teachers and union organizers believe the firings were calculated retaliation. They say Goldberg’s behavior in his office and his emails are just examples of his antagonistic attitude toward his teachers’ attempt to unionize.

“Opportunity Charter School has taken a negative stance since day one of the staff forming a union,” said UFT charter school representative Miles Trager, who met personally with Goldberg. “The firings further confirm their intention of quelling teacher voice at the school. “

The teacher on the organizing committee rejected the reason given to her for termination: that she had been persistently late. Instead, she said, she thinks her pro-union vote cost her her job.

“Could it be the union? Sure,” said the teacher, who like others, spoke for this story on the condition that their identities be withheld so as not to hurt future job prospects. “Could it be anything else? I really don’t think so.”

The majority of charter school teachers are not unionized. Out of more than 120 charter schools in New York City, UFT represents educators in 12.

In the vast majority of charter schools, teachers are paid more on average, but usually work on one-year contracts and aren’t afforded as much job protection as union teachers. At OCS, teachers signed “at-will” contracts, meaning that they can be fired at any time without notice or without a reason.

It is illegal under federal law for employers to fire or discipline employees who engage in union activities.

Goldberg did not respond to several attempts for comment. A lawyer for the school declined to comment on personnel matters, but he denied that any hirings or firings have ever been based on union activity.

“No employment decision is or ever has been made on the basis of an employee’s participation or non-participation in union organizing activity,” said the lawyer, Kevin P. Quinn.

The union bid follows a tumultuous period for the secondary school, which reserves half of its seats for students who require special education services. Last year, an investigation found that the school’s leadership, including Goldberg, failed to adequately supervise a school culture that was at times abusive toward students.

Before that, there were calls from city officials to improve school management. In its review of OCS for charter renewal, which was initially delayed, then renewed for a shortened two-year term, the DOE recommended that the school needed to “add skillful members to the Board” and “improve the overall management of the School.”

In response to the 2010 investigation, Goldberg removed two co-directors from the school’s day-to-day operations, Brett Fazio and Betty Marsella, both of whom were also named in the probe.

One was forced out immediately. Staff members said the sudden departure of Fazio, who built close relationships with students, especially threatened to uproot stability that they worked hard to maintain. “He just like disappeared,” said the organizing teacher. “There was no explanation.”

The other director, Marsella, was banished to work from home as the Director of External Development and eventually resigned earlier this year.

“Morale had been low for at least a year,” said another teacher whose contract was terminated. The teacher said she was also fired for being late too many times.

“The administration became more and more withdrawn and more top heavy,” she added.

Attrition rates for teachers and students has steadily increased since 2006, according to the 2010 annual report on OCS. Last year 28 percent of teachers left – 8 percent, or four teachers, were terminated – and 15 percent of students left.

When the teachers voted to join the UFT in early May, they said in a press release that it was because they wanted to retain quality teachers, reclaim the school mission and improve the voice of its instructors.

“I believe everyone has a voice and every voice deserves to be heard. We need a union to ensure our right to speak up for what’s best for us and best for our students,” said Nayomi Reghay, one of the lead organizers.

Towards the end of May, Goldberg took to the school’s email listserv to address the union activity. In a span of seven days, he sent at least six messages to staff, which GothamSchools obtained. In them, he referred to articles about unions and offered advice to pro-union staff with second thoughts.

In some, he said he was unopposed to unions. “Our view on the issue is simple,” he wrote. “We are not anti-union.”

In others, he attempted to discredit unions by painting them as self-interested, for-profit organizations. “A union is a business like any other business. It’s business is collecting dues to pay its officers, employees, and throw itself lavish parties,” he wrote in another email.

The OCS administration missed the 30-day deadline on June 12 to officially recognize the UFT as a bargaining negotiator, sending the dispute to the state Public Employee Relations Board later this month. A preliminary hearing between both sides is scheduled for July 19.

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