Dozens of teachers and parents braved frigid temperatures to voice their outrage about the fiscal irresponsibility they say is taking place at a Jamaica charter school during a rally on Dec. 22.
The protesters are furious that Merrick Academy is spending $1.3 million in management fees on Victory Schools, a for-profit management company — that’s 25 percent of the school’s total annual budget, while they claim teachers and students are suffering.
“We’re here to be treated fairly,” said Margorie Berry, a Pre-K teacher at Merrick. “We don’t feel like we’re getting the respect we deserve. Our salaries have been frozen for a year and a half now. We just want the best for our kids and we want our teachers to stay, but the way we are being treated, teachers are going to be leaving.”
But according to James Stovall, chief administrative officer for Victory, the teachers have received their full salaries plus an annual 3 to 5 percent raise for the last seven years. It was only when they decided to join the United Federation of Teachers that their pay became stagnant, which he said the law allows while union members are in the process of negotiating a contract. Once the negotiations are completed, raises can resume and may even be retroactive.
Stovall stated that only 10 percent of the contract — the portion regarding salary — remains in dispute. “The board has offered several competitive pay raises, all of which were rejected by the UFT,” he explained.
The teachers also claim that they consistently receive threats to their days off, job security and paychecks and that the children must go without essential services and supplies —classrooms do not have heat, there is no gymnasium and teachers are forced to Xerox existing textbooks, rather than order additional copies.
“Why don’t our children have computers and books that they need?” asked concerned parent Natalie Coggins-Phillip. “Why are the teachers making copies of the textbooks that the children need? Why are consultants more important than our children’s supplies?”
Stovall says that issues regarding a lack of heat in classrooms have only been brought to the school board’s attention recently and that members are working to correct the problem. He also stated that the school has never had a gymnasium due to lack of space and that claims of students going without necessary supplies are untrue.
“If you look at the results of Merrick students, you will see why they hired us and why they retain us,” Stovall said. “They have the highest test scores in the state.”
Gerald Karikari, the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Merrick, stated that he had no knowledge of threats of any kind being made to teachers and that only recently have days off and pay been brought up.
“Some staff members were taking more days off than they had accrued and we were spending more money on substitutes than we had anticipated,” he said. “We told the administration to explain to them that they would be docked pay if they took off more days than they were allowed.”
City Comptroller-elect John Liu, who also attended the protest and shares the teachers’ concerns, said that in a time of scarce resources, funding should be used to benefit students. He said the city itself sets a bad example in school management.
“Sometimes you can’t blame them,” Liu said of the school’s decision to hire the firm. “You go downtown, where the Department of Education is — what a fine example they’re setting over there. I wonder who it is that’s leading the way for hiring all these high-priced consultants. We have to make sure from the top on down everyone is learning the right lesson here.”
Victory Schools has been managing Merrick since the school’s inception in 1999 and has provided services that the Board of Trustees is not allowed to provide, given that it is strictly a policy making entity.
“Even if Victory were to magically go away, that money would still have to go to hiring additional staff or some other entity to perform those services,” Stovall said.
The management firm provides instructional support services that include: helping teachers understand and convey state curriculum requirements through their lesson plans, providing professional development and classroom management, ensuring that the student test assessments are aligned with state standards and helping teachers interpret the results of the exams and alter their curriculum accordingly.
Non-instructional support services include helping to set up the school’s budget, paying all the bills, overseeing the staff payroll and ensuring that the school complies with local, state and federal laws.
Jonathan Carrington, a third-grade teacher at Merrick, expressed dissatisfaction with Victory’s role.
“Our main priority is to help educate the children and to come up with an environment that is conducive to learning,” he said. “Giving over a million dollars to a management company that no one believes is effectively managing the school is a mismanagement of funds. That money could be put directly toward helping the children.”
Karikari said that when Victory’s contract expires at the end of next year, the school will work diligently to negotiate a better deal or try to find a different company that can offer the same or better services at a more competitive price.
However, he was also quick to point out that any saved revenue will not go entirely to increasing teachers’ salaries, but must also be set aside to purchase a new building and create a rainy day fund.
As far as the protest is concerned, Karikari, who says he supports both teachers and unions, took it with a grain of salt stating, “I think it is all a misunderstanding.”