Teachers stepping up behind Charter School principal

Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum outside the Calverton school Monday morning. Mr. Ankrum is at the center of a dispute among teachers at the school. (Credit: Michael White)
Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum outside the Calverton school Monday morning. Mr. Ankrum is at the center of a dispute among teachers at the school.
(Credit: Michael White)

More than a dozen Riverhead Charter School teachers and administrators have come out this week in defense of Ray Ankrum, the school’s principal and executive director, who’s facing “union-busting” accusations that include firings and intimidation tactics directed at staffers sympathetic to the school’s teachers union.

Mr. Ankrum’s supporters include six veteran teachers who are members of the school’s leadership team. The team is also being implicated for taking part in anti-union activities in violation of state labor laws, according to two complaints filed with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

(See the full complaints at the end of this story.)

But the News-Review has been in contact with a mix of other newer and veteran teachers, who say the picture painted in the complaints is not an accurate representation of the daily reality on the Calverton campus. A more accurate depiction, they say, is that Mr. Ankrum is a no-nonsense principal who expects the very best from his teachers — some of whom just can’t handle the demands.

The allegations are “totally untrue and false,” said physical education teacher Robert Cook, a member of the leadership team who’s in his ninth year at the school. “Mr. Ankrum doesn’t have a problem with the union; he has a problem with teachers who aren’t providing quality instruction for his kids.”

“He’s ensuring high-quality instruction for all students,” said director of curriculum Maile Madigan, who was hired just this school year. “Isn’t that what we all want?”

The two complaints against the school, filed separately by New York State United Teachers in February and last week and first reported last Thursday by news website, allege that Mr. Ankrum and leadership team members, whom the complaint describes as “middle management,” had taken various steps to “harass and retaliate against” faculty members perceived as supporting the Riverhead Charter School Employees Association union and to “foment a chilling effect” on that support.

All faculty members at the Riverhead Charter School are, by law, members of the union, including members of the leadership team.

ankrumNYSUT, 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.

“These were punitive actions that were taken against people who have either voiced support for the union or who were trying to support others who had done the same,” said Peter Verdon, a regional staff director for NYSUT. “Unfortunately, this new administration is quite clearly deciding they want to attack the union and take a voice away from the teachers.”

The Riverhead Charter School, established in 2001 as a tuition-free K-6 program, is in the process of a $14 million expansion that will enable it to accommodate students in seventh and eighth grades. It currently has 48 employees, including 40 teachers. Students this semester are 70 percent minority and hail from about a dozen different school districts. Before taking the helm in August 2012, Mr. Ankrum had previously held leadership positions at charter schools in Harlem, New Jersey and elsewhere.

As for its labor history, Mr. Verdon noted that Riverhead was among the first of only 20 charter schools statewide to unionize.

“Historically, this was not an acrimonious labor-management relationship going back over the years [in Riverhead],” he said.

The president of the school’s Board of Trustees, Zenobia Hartfield, released this statement on behalf of the board in response to the alleged labor violations:

“Mr. Ankrum is a strong instructional leader.  He insists upon employing staff whose performance will best help our children achieve their full potential.  He, and we as a board, will not tolerate mediocrity in our teaching staff, regardless of alleged union sympathies.”

Most of the Riverhead Charter School teachers who spoke to the paper this week did so after the News-Review asked Mr. Ankrum to allow interviews with faculty. The principal also contacted the school’s union representative for possible comment in the News-Review, but that rep did not contact the paper.

Other people who identified themselves as Riverhead Charter School teachers did contact the newspaper to speak out against Mr. Ankrum.

“I’m sure you’re getting phone calls from people who are telling you how wonderful our principal is,” said one caller, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “And I’m sure at one time he was. He wanted to come in and do the right thing, but he hasn’t done the right thing in 18 months. I fear every day that I’m going to lose my job. I never open my mouth I don’t even give my opinion, but I cannot do my job and do the extent that I should be when I’m afraid.”

Another anonymous caller wanted to point out that the leadership team members “are paid additional stipends for their positions.”

Mr. Ankrum confirmed that leadership members do receive an extra $3,000 to $4,000 per year for their service as mentors and managers.

“It should also be noted that members of the leadership team are the highest-rated teachers in the school regarding their teaching performance,” he said. “My focus is on the top 10 percent of my staff, as I do not want to lose any of my top people. It’s the 10/80/10 rule of business; the bottom 10 percent will do whatever they can to cause disruption.”