Editor’s note: An initial version of this story published at riverheadnewsreview.com Tuesday night was replaced online Wednesday morning with an updated story, which will also appear in Thursday’s edition of the Riverhead News-Review newspaper.
In an effort to raise awareness of “union busting” concerns at the Riverhead Charter School in Calverton, New York State Union Teachers members from across Suffolk County gathered Tuesday to show support for teachers who have been fired from the school.
The rally came about a month after Kasey Wehrheim, who was the union president at the Riverhead Charter School, was fired after an egg-allergy incident involving a student.
Peter Verdon, a regional staff director for the New York State Union Teachers, confirmed none of the current charter school teachers attended the rally and said teachers from districts across Suffolk County — including Riverhead, Shoreham-Wading River, Port Jefferson, and Middle Country, among others — came to the protest to show their support of their fellow union members whom were fired.
“Folks don’t feel safe to come out here and join us,” Mr. Verdon said, “but we know they’re there. Former employees and their families came to show their support.”
Nick Agrusa of Calverton attended the rally because his step-daughter, Jaclyn Scoglio-Walsh, was fired last December from the charter school, which was established in 2001 as a tuition-free K-6 program,
“It was wrong,” said Mr. Agrusa as he held up a sign that read, “Say No To Union Busting.”
NYSUT, a federation of more than 1,200 local teacher unions, is alleging several actions in recent months that violate sections of the Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act, commonly known as the Taylor Law. Among them are the mid-school-year firing of three teachers and retaliatory measures against two others for expressing union support.
As nearly 70 people gathered around Mr. Verdon about an hour before the three-hour protest ended as he spoke through a bullhorn thanking the crowd for its support, charter teachers were inside preparing for the school’s movie night with students and their families.
Last week, 28 charter teachers signed a letter addressed to NYSUT — and shared with local media — stating their opposition to the rally.
(Click here to read the letter)
“The timing of this event is completely irresponsible, as it will likely create a tense, unsafe environment for our students and their families,” the letter read.
During interviews last week with the News-Review, a group of those teachers said NYSUT didn’t contact them about the protest and said they felt insulted by the union because they’re paying members.
“We’re apart of this union; we’re paying for this union but, meanwhile, the union is going against us,” said teacher Anthony Dohrenwend. “At this point, they aren’t telling any of the teachers that are involved. They’re just working with these teachers that were dismissed — for good reason.”
Principal and executive director Ray Ankrum was in the parking lot during Tuesday’s protest as parents drove in for the school’s movie night. He said he believes the “lack of diversity in the crowd speaks to how these teachers don’t understand charter schools.”
“I only counted two or three minorities in the whole crowd,” he said as a parent drove by him and honked showing support. “Charter schools are all about diversity. My student base is about 70 percent black and Latino students. If I’m seeing black and Latino teachers and parents, then I would feel like I was doing something wrong.
“Parents are picking up their kids and saying ‘Stay strong, Mr. Ankrum,’” he said.
Local residents and parents that attended the protest were critical of the school’s principal.
Warren “Skip” Weaver, husband of Mary Ellen Weaver, an outspoken teacher who resigned about two years, said Mr. Ankrum “has to go,” as Mr. Weaver walked over to his son, Skip Weaver Jr., who held a sign that read, “Say Nay To Ray.”
Christina Santopietro, a parent with two children in the school, she believes Mr. Ankrum has created an unhealthy environment for teachers and started a chant, “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Ray Ankrum’s got to go!” as drivers honked their horns as they drove past. [Visit riverheadnewsreview.com to see a video of the protest]
“These teachers have been pushed out and bullied, intimidated,” she told the crowd of supporters. “Ray Ankrum, you are wrong!”
Ms. Santopietro said another rally is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at Stotzky Park in Riverhead.