Harlem charter school fires 13 union supporters

Photo by Miller Photography. At a protest on August 4 outside Harlem’s Opportunity Charter School, teacher Colin Maher speaks to passerby Emily Gutierrez (center) about how he was fired in retaliation for supporting the UFT.

by Micah Landau

In what the UFT charges was retaliation for union activity, 13 teachers at Opportunity Charter School who had signed union authorization cards in May were summarily fired just days before graduation in June. Colleagues, parents, students and union representatives rallied with several of the dismissed educators outside the school on August 4, calling for their reinstatement.

Colin Maher, a first-year Spanish teacher at the school, was among the union supporters fired by the school’s board, headed by CEO Leonard Goldberg.

“I think we were fired to set an example,” Maher said, pausing from handing out leaflets to passers-by on the sidewalk. The message from management, he said, was “that teachers who try to improve school policy have no place here.”

One other teacher who had not signed a union authorization card was also fired.

Asked why teachers at the charter school need a union, Maher cited its harsh lateness policy, which calls for teachers to be suspended without pay for five days if they are one minute late ten times during the year.

“They’re taken out of their classroom for five days, which is very disruptive to the flow of classes and can be upsetting to students as well,” he said. “The school is being run like a business and students are not the top priority.”

Another teacher and union supporter, Meg Fein, who taught English and special education for three years at Opportunity, said she was surprised by her sudden dismissal.

“I was really sad,” said Fein. “I had a lot of success with my students. I didn’t want to leave them.”

Describing conditions at the embattled school, Fein painted a picture of a school community that had devolved over her time there from a “family” in which “everybody worked together” to a “dictatorship” in which “the administrators distinctly separated themselves from the staff.”

Fein said the school leadership was not supportive of the teachers.

“It was a really stressful environment,” she said.

Listing just some of her colleagues’ grievances, Fein said the teachers received no raises during the 2010-2011 school year, their insurance plan was scaled back and the school suffered from a perpetual shortage of copy paper, pens and pencils.

Opportunity teachers publicly announced their intention to join the UFT on May 10, following a 10-week organizing effort. They are now fighting for the school’s board to recognize the UFT as their exclusive collective-bargaining agent.

Opportunity, which opened in the fall of 2004, has 50 teachers and serves 400 students in grades 6-12. It is located at 240 West 113th

Help support Opportunity Charter teachers by telling CEO Leonard Goldberg to reconsider the firings >>

This article originally appeared on UFT.org on August 8, 2011, visit the website for the original article.