By Joe Leverde
It was plenty cold on Dec. 22 when UFT members staged a boisterous late-afternoon demonstration outside the Merrick Academy Charter School in Queens Village to protest their employers’ failure to bargain fairly in their two-year contract battle.
But things heated up considerably a few hours later — and not just because they moved into the cafeteria — when some 50 teachers, joined by more than 100 parents and students, confronted the K-6 school’s board of trustees about its blatant lack of respect.
Besides the contract negotiations, which are at impasse after the board took its latest offer off the table, parents and teachers are fed up with their lack of voice at the charter school, where children have had to endure a shortage of textbooks, oversized classes due to staffing cuts and a building in disrepair.
Teachers at the 500-student school voted overwhelmingly to join the UFT in the fall of 2007 and thought they were close to a contract in January 2008 when, at a pre-hearing conference with the state Public Employment Relations Board, Merrick’s trustees agreed to permit teachers to unionize.
Merrick chief operating officer Donette Edwards, who tried to stop parents and teachers from entering the school to eat pizza in between the outdoor rally and indoor meeting, sends text messages while parents and teachers air their concerns.But then Gerald Karikari, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, along with his fellow board members, unanimously voted to hire Jackson Lewis, the nation’s premier union-busting law firm, to advise it.
Since then, contract talks have produced nothing but frustration. The trustees and Merrick came to bargaining sessions late and unprepared, union officials said. And now the board says it can’t even afford its most recent salary proposal for teachers, many of whom are being paid at the rate that New York City district school teachers earned in 2005.
- The fee for Victory Schools, Merrick’s for-profit operator, increased to $1.36 million last year, a 10-percent increase from the year before and more than 21 percent of the school’s total budget.
- Additional “consultant fees” rose from $30,000 to $159,000.
- Legal fees went from zero in 2006 to $120,000 last year, after the hiring of Jackson Lewis.
- It cost $891,000 to lease the building last year, up $100,000 from the year before and $300,000 from 2006.
“Spending money on consultants and not on supplies for our kids?” said parent Natalie Coggins-Phillip, noting that students need computers and that some teachers must make copies of textbook pages to substitute for the real thing.
Parents, also angry over having to wait 45 minutes for the scheduled 6:30 p.m. meeting to start because of the late arrival of board chair Karikari and another 75 minutes for a chance to speak after routine business was conducted, said the school needed a gymnasium and better safety measures, and complained about heating and plumbing problems and a leaky roof.
“I’d be lying if I said morale hasn’t been affected by the stalling,” Chapter Leader Jonathan Carrington said, “but we haven’t given up. The passion and support of the parents have invigorated us.”
When Karikari told parents and teachers at the meeting that teachers rejected raises, a number of people in the crowd shouted, “Liar!”
Carrington said many teachers have left in frustration over a lack of voice and fear of repercussions, “but most of us have stuck it out because we know what this school can become. We’re in this fight not only for ourselves, but to establish a better learning environment for the children.”