Ousted trustee files federal lawsuit against Riverhead Charter School

09/22/2014 8:00 AM |
Riverhead Charter School staff members are accused of violating a former trustees constitutional rights. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Riverhead Charter School staff members are accused of violating a former trustees constitutional rights. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A former Riverhead Charter School board member is suing the school and members of its staff after she was not reappointed to her volunteer position at the expiration of her term in May.

In a federal lawsuit filed Sept. 12, Renee Harris Thompson of Shirley claims the Calverton school’s staff violated her constitutional rights and damaged her reputation in retaliation for her criticism of policy decisions.

The lawsuit names eight individual defendants; including board members and administrators. It alleges charter school principal Raymond Ankrum “was verbally threatening and abusive toward the plaintiff” and made “false accusations and disparaging remarks regarding [Ms. Harris Thompson’s] performance.” It goes on to say fellow board members made “libelous statements, calling into question the plaintiff’s integrity.”

Court documents also state Ms. Harris-Thompson was forced out also in part because she elected to enroll her son in a different school.

The Riverhead Charter School’s attorney, Richard Zuckerman of Melville firm Lamb & Barnosky, LLP, who was first informed of the suit on Thursday, disputed the facts presented by the plaintiff.

“She is claiming that her reputation was destroyed, without saying what her reputation was,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “That doesn’t make a lawsuit. [Renee Harris Thompson] is not suing to get her board position back, she is just suing for damages. From that, I think you can draw your own conclusion about whether this lawsuit has any merit.”

As far as the allegation against Mr. Ankrum, Mr. Zuckerman called those claims unfounded.

“Ms. Harris Thompson and Mr. Ankrum didn’t always get along,” he said. “He has a strong personality because he cares about doing what is right for the kids. What I do know are the things that she categorized as threats happened in front of [a lot of] other people who were flabbergasted to hear it had become part of a lawsuit, because they were civil conversations.”

Ms. Harris Thompson’s lawyer, Harriet Gilliam of Riverhead, did not return requests for comment.

The suit comes four months after board members didn’t reappoint Ms. Harris Thompson to another term on the board. Unlike with regular public school districts, the public does not elect the Riverhead Charter School’s trustees; instead, the other members of the trustees appoint them.

During a board meeting in May, when Ms. Harris Thompson’s first three-year term on the board was up, it was up to the other four trustees present to reappoint her to the unpaid post.

According to a News-Review article published in May, Ms. Harris Thompson said the school’s bylaws don’t call for the trustees to vote to renew board members’ terms, but board members disagreed. And when it came time to reappoint her, no other board member made a motion to do so.

Ms. Harris Thompson then got up and left and didn’t return.

The suit claims the board knowingly violated Ms. Harris Thompson’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, denying her due process, by calling for a vote on her membership against the charter’s by-laws.

“The board departed from the past practice of automatic renewal,” the lawsuit states. “The board departed from … its bylaws by refusing to reappoint the plaintiff and putting it to a vote, an action which had never been done before.”

The May meeting was not the first time the board attempted to remove Ms. Harris Thompson, the lawsuit claims. In September 2013, members voted to end her term following a bad performance review. The vote was later overturned since the board did not have a quorum under the state’s open meetings laws.

The suit claims the board made false and libelous statements regarding her job performance prior to the vote in retaliation for calling into question the board’s payment practices.

Starting in the spring of 2013, Ms. Harris Thompson voiced several concerns including the violation of laws regarding special education students and inappropriate comments on the principal’s Twitter account that was linked to the school’s official website without board authorization, and other concerns, the suit states.

It also alleges that the school and its staff became increasingly hostile toward Ms. Harris Thompson. In January she was stripped of her duties as secretary and blocked from certain charter school-related websites, according to court documents.

“[Ms. Harris-Thompson] was deprived of her constitutional right of freedom of speech … by retaliating against her for her speech on matters of public concern,” the lawsuit states. “[She] suffered a chilling effect to her speech in terms of raising issues with the board since it only resulted in further isolation and ridicule.”

“As a result of the board and individual trustees’ violation … [Ms. Harris Thompson] has suffered damage to her reputation, hurt, humiliation, mental anguish, physical pain, diminution of quality or life and financial loss,” the lawsuit states.

Ms. Harris Thompson is seeking monetary damages of $15 million but is not seeking to be reinstated to her position, according to court documents.

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