Law & Courts

Union Sues to Stop Firing of Teacher Who Challenged Charter Conversion

By Benjamin Herold — March 11, 2011 6 min read
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The firing of Philadelphia high school teacher Hope Moffett was put on hold Thursday after the teachers’ union went to federal court, arguing that Moffett was being targeted for speaking out against a plan to convert her school to a charter.

“Hope is just one of many,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry T. Jordan said. “The suit is being filed on behalf of all PFT members to protect their right to speak freely, without fear of retaliation or intimidation by the district.”

Jordan called for a demonstration of teachers outside school district headquarters on Monday afternoon to oppose the conversion of public schools to charters, the slashing of educational programs, and what he described as the district’s intimidation of teachers.

“My members are very concerned about freedom of speech, what’s happening in their schools, and the lack of professional treatment they’re receiving,” Jordan said. “They want an action to voice their sentiments.”

The union’s legal complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, accuses the district of an “egregious and unconscionable violation” of teachers’ “rights to exercise their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.”

On Feb. 17, the district temporarily reassigned two teachers, Hope Moffett and Victoria Monacelli-Herff, from their positions at Charles Y. Audenried High School to basement administrative offices in North Philadelphia—a so-called “rubber room” or “teacher jail.”

Though the teachers were given no indication of why they were being removed from the school, their reassignment letters contained blanket gag orders.

The PFT complaint argues that those actions violated standard district policies. Calling the reassignments for unspecified offenses “unprecedented,” it said that teachers are typically only removed from their classrooms pending their disciplinary hearings in cases of “violence, physical misconduct, or similarly threatening behavior.”

The complaint also described as “without precedence” the district’s involvement of “high-ranking administrators” at a first investigatory conference.

“The assignment was purely punitive, designed to intimidate and retaliate against Moffett and Monacelli-Herff,” reads the complaint.

Monacelli-Herff, who has not spoken publicly on the matter, was returned to the classroom after one day in the “rubber room.”

But Moffett, prior to her initial “investigatory conference” with district officials, provided a copy of her reassignment letter to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, then sat for an extensive interview. Moffett disclosed that she had provided public transit tokens to students who later walked out of school and traveled to district headquarters, about three-and-a-half miles away, to protest the planned conversion of their school to a charter.

On Feb. 23, three days after the story appeared, district officials formally charged Moffett with “endangering the safety and welfare of children”—by providing the students with tokens that they used to leave school without parental permission—as well as violating the gag order.

On March 7, they formally recommended that she be terminated. A so-called “level two” hearing that would have made the district’s recommendation final was scheduled for next Monday.

In response to the lawsuit, the district released a statement saying that it has agreed to delay its termination proceedings pending the federal court hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

Moffett, who has been in administrative detention for 12 days, will continue to report to the same basement room until that hearing occurs. In the meantime, her 11th grade students are preparing for important state standardized tests that they will take before the end of the month.

In a press briefing prior to the filing of the suit, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Penny Nixon strongly disputed the notion that the district’s push to terminate Moffett was the result of her speaking out.

“This is not about Ms. Moffett’s views on the Renaissance process,” said Nixon. “She has the right to speak about the Renaissance process. But she does not have the right to place the health, safety, and welfare of students in jeopardy.”

At the same press briefing, district spokesperson Jamilah Fraser revealed that officials were withholding information from unnamed sources that the district intended to use against Moffett, despite the PFT’s contention that all available evidence is required to be disclosed in writing so Moffett can prepare her defense.

“There have been several teachers, parents, and community leaders who have come to us” with concerns about Moffett, said Fraser. “They would rather remain anonymous and [therefore] we cannot provide that [information] to Ms. Moffett in her documentation.”

PFT President Jordan reacted strongly to that revelation, calling it “dishonest” and “clearly another indication that this is a district setup to intimidate [Moffett] and every teacher.”

The court complaint reiterates that stance, casting the district’s actions as an attempt to silence dissent among teachers districtwide and emphasizing teachers’ First Amendment right to speak out “about matters of public concern.”

“The school district’s unprecedented removal of the teachers from their classroom and teaching duties, as well as manipulation of the discipline process in order to create a coercive and intimidating atmosphere, signals to the PFT’s bargaining unit members that speaking out on matters of public concern will lead to loss of their classroom assignments, unfair discipline, punitive detention under inhumane and stigmatizing conditions, and job loss,” reads the complaint.

District officials declined further comment on Thursday.

Moffett, a 25-year-old Teach for America alumna who is in her third year at Audenried, remained vocal in her stance that her pending termination is secondary to the fate of her school.

“I care passionately about [my school], and I care passionately that school districts operate in a transparent way,” she said.

The planned conversion of Audenried to a charter is part of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative, now in its second year. Last year, seven of the district’s lowest–performing schools were turned over to outside managers under the initiative.

In the prior Renaissance charter conversions, a group of potential managers had to first pass scrutiny at the district level, then compete to manage schools by making presentations to school advisory councils, or SACs, consisting primarily of parents and community members. The school-based committees made recommendations to Ackerman, who makes the final decision.

In the case of Audenried and nearby Vare Middle, however, Ackerman had decreed without any local input that the schools be turned over to Universal Companies, Inc., a community development organization run by music mogul Kenny Gamble.

Last year, Universal was awarded a prestigious $500,000 federal planning grant to turn the depressed communities surrounding Audenried into a “Promise Neighborhood” modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone. The award calls for a “cradle-to-college” approach that combines charter school management and social service delivery under the umbrella of a lead community-based organization.

District officials have previously described the planning grant award as a “unique opportunity” to improve both the schools and the surrounding community. They have brushed aside criticism about the lack of public involvement or oversight in their selection of Universal to manage Vare and Audenried as Renaissance Schools, saying only that “it’s a different model.”

Based on current enrollments, Universal stands to receive roughly $9 million in charter school payments to operate the two schools next year.

Moffett, along with a group of staff, students, and members of the Audenried community, have aggressively challenged the lack of public input into the conversion plan. They also dispute the data used by the district to pin the label of “failing school” on Audenried. Newly reopened in 2008, the school this year has its first class of 11th graders, but they have yet to take the state test usually used to make such decisions.

“In the end, what I care about is that Audenried’s situation is handled openly and fairly,” Moffett said.

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Republished with permission from The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Copyright © 2011 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week

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