Critics, supporters of charter school principal clash at meeting

A large group of Spanish-speaking parents attended Tuesday night's meeting and complained of accessibility to at least one item that was being read only in English. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
A large group of Spanish-speaking parents attended Tuesday night’s meeting and complained of accessibility to at least one item that was being read only in English. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

The tensions of a divided school community were on full display at the Riverhead Charter School’s board of trustees meeting Tuesday night.

That meeting ended abruptly, when critics and supporters of principal and executive director Ray Ankrum began screaming at one another about what kind of comments should be allowed at such times — until, finally, the board threw the public out and continued the meeting in private. 

Mr. Ankrum, who wasn’t present, and members of the school’s leadership team, are using firings and intimidation tactics directed at staffers sympathetic to the school’s teachers union. The accusations were made in two complaints filed with the state Public Employment Relations Board by New York State United Teachers, which represents the union.

Toward the start of Tuesday’s meeting, a large group of Spanish-speaking parents asked that a translator be present. Board members then asked a school administrator to translate what was being said.

Most of those parents voiced concern about why so many teachers were being fired.

“The teachers are doing a good job; the principal is not,” Ingrid Villacion said through the interpreter.

“My son’s teacher was fired three or four months into the school year and my son came home heartbroken asking me why,” said Jacqueline Chavez. “If that’s going to have an impact on my child, I should have the right to know why.”

A number of Riverhead Charter School teachers attended the meeting, sporting T-shirts that read “#teambringit.” But for the most part, they didn’t speak.

One teacher who declined to identify himself told a News-Review reporter afterward that the teachers wearing the T-shirts support Mr. Ankrum.

“I’ve been here for nine years and he’s the best principal we’ve had,” the man said. He said the accusations brought against Mr. Ankrum were spread by the teachers who were fired. Unlike a public school, charter school teachers don’t have tenure and can be fired for performance issues.

One parent, Aimee LoMonaco, had her son read a poem that included the line “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better.”

She said students are the “face” of the charter school.

While addressing accusations and rumors surrounding Mr. Ankrum and the school, Ms. LoMonaco said, “I beg of you, please, as a community, to temper the emotions. I’m just so heartbroken of the things that I read that become slanderous or finger-pointing. Your truth is not my truth, but the truth of the children is what matters most.”

One woman said she saw “many questions and no responses,” which prompted board president Zenobia Hartfield to say, “Public comments are for the public making comments — we’re not engaging in a back and forth discussion. We are taking names down and we will respond to your inquiries.”

Warren “Skip” Weaver, husband of Mary Ellen Weaver, an outspoken teacher who resigned last year, read a letter stating that most Riverhead Charter School board members shouldn’t hold their positions because they don’t take them seriously.

“Last month, the meeting began with only two members present, and during public comments two other board members strolled in,” he said.