A scandal-plagued Queens charter school fired at least nine teachers Tuesday - via FedEx, union officials said.
Some of the Merrick Academy staffers who got the boot are chalking it up to a bitter contract dispute between the school and unionized teachers…
Kindergarten teacher Marjorie Berry, 60, one of the fired teachers, isn't buying it. "I was upset, because I put my heart and soul into these children and into the school," said Berry, who has taught at the school since it opened. "I just feel like I've been pushed aside like a piece of garbage."
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed documents from a politically connected architect who helped design Merrick's school building in an ongoing corruption probe of several Queens politicians, including Merrick founders Senate President Malcolm Smith and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks.
…Just before New Year’s, parents and teachers protested outside the Merrick Academy Charter School in Queens, calling for immediate improvements at their for-profit charter school affiliated with Victory Schools. 35 Victory’s contract with Merrick Academy CS entitles it to a management fee of $2,000 per student – money that is paid to Victory “off the top” from per-pupil aid. Records show Victory collected at least $1.36 million in management fees in 2008-09, about 21 percent of Merrick Academy’s total revenue. Victory also charged other fees, and made a loan to the school at 9.85 percent interest.
Yet, Victory required teachers photocopy academic material that students needed because of a shortage of supplies. Parents, meanwhile, expressed outrage that the school board chairman asked for donations of copy paper because, he said, the school did not have enough funds…
…Conflicts of interest and profits at the expense of students have raised questions at the Merrick Academy Charter School. A Merrick Academy board member earned $19,675 for legal work while serving on Merrick’s board. Recent newspaper reports say elected officials with connections to the charter school have benefited from campaign contributions. The SUNY Charter School Institute investigated allegations of grade tampering on state math, social studies and English language arts tests in 2008 and referred the case to the State Education Department. Victory Schools, a for-profit management company, collected more than $1.36 million in management fees (21 percent of revenue) and charged $800,000 for rent for the school building in 2008-09….
Students at Merrick Academy charter school - housed in an old bowling alley in Queens Village must cross busy Jamaica Ave. for recess in a nearby park because there's no gym or playground.
They also must get used to water leaking into classrooms when it rains and wearing winter coats inside when there's no heat.
"The school is on a very big intersection," said Kenneth Eriaidubor, who has a second-grader and a kindergartner at Merrick. "We are very concerned that leaving a school is not a really safe zone for the children."
"There's a leak, there's heating problems," said Sidney Dasent, whose daughter is a second-grader. "There's even a problem with supplies."
There's also another potential problem - one many parents may not know about: Merrick has served as a source of campaign funds and patronage for one of its high-profile board members - State Senate President Malcolm Smith…
…While Smith was on Merrick's board, an architect did "preliminary drawings" regarding turning the bowling alley into a school. That architect also was working on one of Smith's personal properties at the time, records show.
The same architect was also later hired to design a home owned by another Merrick board member and Smith ally, Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks.
The Merrick board has been loaded up with Smith allies. Besides Meeks, there's Smith's former business partner Darryl Greene.
In 1999, two years before he became a Merrick board member, Greene pleaded guilty to stealing $500,000 on government contracts. Greene left the Merrick board in the last few months.
Until recently, another board member was Joan Flowers, campaign treasurer for Smith and Meeks. She's a Senate staffer.
Flowers also worked as counsel to Merrick for a time, pocketing a modest $19,675 in fees while she served on the board. Flowers did not return calls.
Smith declined to answer questions about Merrick. Last week he came under fire for his involvement in another charter school, the Peninsula Preparatory Academy in Far Rockaway…
…Across Queens at Merrick, parents acknowledge that academics have improved, but they continue to have concerns about an unsafe environment - and some have raised questions about where school money is going.
For instance, the school spent $200,000 in 2009 on "security," but there's no security guard.
"We don't have security, and that's a problem. No names are taken down," one teacher said. "I had a parent come in. She was in my face and she was very aggressive. Another teacher that was much taller than her had to intervene."
Dasent said he's been asked to pitch in with basics likes color copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer…
…In its early days, school officials confirmed that architect Robert Gaskin did some "preliminary drawings" on how to transform the bowling alley at 207-01 Jamaica Ave. into a school.
Records show Gaskin applying for a permit in July 2001 for the school building. At the time, records show Gaskin was also the architect of record on a two-family house on 230th St. that Smith owned and was renovating.
James Stovall, an official with Victory Schools, the for-profit company that Merrick pays to run the school, said Gaskin was not paid for his work at the school. Gaskin, who lists the Merrick job on his Web site, did not return calls to reveal how he got the job with Merrick or Smith.
In December, the Buildings Department cited Merrick for failing to fix an inoperable elevator and fined it $5,000. The school notes it has no wheelchair-bound students who would need the elevator and blamed a vendor for the violation. A settlement with the city is in the works.
Meanwhile, parents for years paid a company tied to the longtime principal, Alma Alston, for after-school activities at Merrick, records show.
Records show Alston is listed as manager, consultant and director of Creative Community Consultants, Merrick's after-school provider. The company's office is at the school.
"Victory was aware, did an investigation and all I can say is she is on leave of absence," Stovall said. The school recently ended its agreement with Creative Community…