Merrick teachers sue to get school to honor contract

By Cara Metz

Teachers ratifying the contract on Nov. 3. "We assumed Merrick — the administration and the board — would follow the contract, because that’s what normally happens,” said UFT Chapter Leader Christine Celli-Hernandez.

When teachers at Merrick Academy Charter School in Queens Village ratified their first contract this past November, said UFT Chapter Leader Christine Celli-Hernandez, “we assumed Merrick — the administration and the board — would follow the contract, because that’s what normally happens.”

Instead, said Celli-Hernandez, who has taught at the school for a decade, Merrick did not adhere to the pay increases, retroactive pay, work hours and tuition reimbursement that it had agreed to.

The contract included a 4 percent raise for teachers in the 2009-2010 school year, a 3 percent raise in 2010-2011 and 2.5 percent raises in each of the following two years, none of which teachers have received.

And despite contract language that spells out the reimbursement rates for courses relating to obtaining or retaining teaching licenses, Merrick reimbursed two teachers at only a fraction of what it had agreed to.

Merrick teachers used their contract to grieve these and other issues, going through steps one, two and three of the grievance process, only to find Merrick ignoring the grievances — just as it had ignored the contract — every step of the way.

Left with few other avenues of redress, the UFT on March 30 filed a lawsuit against Merrick alleging breach of contract.

“From the moment Merrick teachers decided they wanted to be organized as a chapter of the UFT and have the right to collectively bargain their wages and working conditions, the board has done everything in its power to deny them those rights,” said Leo Casey, the UFT vice president for high schools. “Given their refusal to abide by the contract, we decided to go to court.”

In addition to the lawsuit, the UFT filed an improper practice charge against Merrick Academy with the state Public Employment Relations Board accusing Merrick of intimidating and coercing teachers.

“It took us years to negotiate this contract and we want it adhered to and we want to stop being harassed,” said Celli-Hernandez.

The first instance of harassment cited in the PERB complaint involved teacher Eully Risi, who was placed on a two-week unpaid administrative leave for insubordination after asking a question in a staff meeting.

According to the complaint, Celli-Hernandez was also the victim of harassment as a result of performing her duties as chapter leader — a violation of the state Taylor Law. Celli-Hernandez had met with Human Resources to discuss complaints from several teachers that the principal was not present for the entire classroom observation and had been on her cellphone when she was supposed to be observing the class. Shortly after her meeting, Celli-Hernandez was given a letter in her file and informed that if she was found to have spread “malicious gossip and/or rumors,” she could be terminated.

Risi and Celli-Hernandez were among the 11 teachers fired with no warning — by FedEx letter — in July 2010, during the campaign for union representation at the school. The UFT won reinstatement or settlements for all teachers.

Merrick is managed by Victory Schools, a for-profit charter management organization that has had an adversarial relationship with the UFT.

This article originally appeared in The New York Teacher on April 19, 2012, visit UFT.org, for the original article.