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“Believe” the Teachers

Monday’s announcements that all three charter schools in the Believe Network would likely have their charters revoked at the end of the school year were no surprise to those who have been following recent news about these schools and the network which runs them. From security camera footage that showed Believe students were being forced to attend classes in factory space to the photo of Believe CEO Eddie Calderon-Melendez charging a New York Post photographer, evidence suggested that both the state’s investigation into the Network’s finances and the DOE’s review of the school’s management would find multiple egregious violations of the school leaders’ legal responsibilities.

As the DOE’s own revocation letter for Williamsburg Charter High School notes, Mr. Calderon-Melendez and his schools’ Boards have a long history of questionable dealings, including the decision of the boards to pay him huge salaries ($478,000 in 2009 and $378,000 in 2010) even as the schools he managed were failing into so much debt that they were eventually unable to pay their rent. As we’ve noted, these high salary levels aren’t unusual among charter network leaders, even those in charge of relatively small numbers of schools and students — Eva Moskowitz, for example, earned $308,000 in 2008 for running a network with fewer than 1900 pupils.

What hasn’t gotten as much recent coverage, however, is the fact that as early as 2006, teachers at Williamsburg Charter were raising red flags about the school and its leadership — and were fired for their efforts to organize teachers around these concerns. As Leo Casey noted six years ago, one teacher was fired after she “began to ask questions about why the quarterly reports of teachers’ 401(k) plans did not show that the school was depositing the funds that were part of their remuneration for their work.” Another educator (whose teaching had been held up as a model during a visit by Joel Klein just months before) was terminated after sharing the DOE salary schedule with her colleagues; when she asked for the reasons for her dismissal, Calderon-Melendez “replied that he did not have to give her a reason, as she was an at will employee who could be let go for any reason whatsoever.”

At the time, even strong charter supporters such as Joe Williams of the New York Charter Schools Association (now of Democrats for Education Reform) concluded that the firings were troubling — but they insisted that the school’s authorizer would surely hold its leadership accountable. Instead, the DOE under Joel Klein not only gave the school a full renewal, but also allowed Calderon-Melendez to open two additional schools — both of which also just had their charters revoked by the state because of similar violations.

Perhaps if more weight had been given to teachers’ concerns six years ago — or if the charters’ authorizer had taken the school’s repression of teachers’ right to a voice at work more seriously — the students and parents at these schools wouldn’t now be faced with the sudden loss of their school due to the terrible decisions of its leadership.