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Ex-Bronx chapter leader gets justice

Judge rules she was targeted by principal for defending members
New York Teacher
Ex-Bronx chapter_ leader gets justice
Jonathan Fickies

Brenda Cartagena had been forced to transfer to another Bronx school in 2019, but an administrative law judge has ruled she must be returned to PS 1. 

An administrative law judge has ruled that Bronx teacher Brenda Cartagena had been the victim of retaliation by her school’s principal for standing up for her members’ rights when she was the school chapter leader.

The April 8 ruling by Kafui Aku Bediako for the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) ordered school officials to “stop threatening and initiating disciplinary action against Brenda Cartagena in retaliation for her engagement in protected activity,” to purge all negative reports from her personnel records and to reimburse her with interest for a previously imposed $6,000 fine.

The administrative law judge said Cartagena, who had been forced to transfer to another school by the district superintendent in 2019, must be returned to PS 1.

Cartagena, who began her career as a paraprofessional and became a teacher in 1999, said she had no problems with Principal Jorge Perdomo until she became PS 1’s chapter leader in 2015.

“I wouldn’t let him step all over the teachers’ rights on the contract,” she said. Prior to her taking on the role, she added, “I don’t think anybody stood up to him quite the way I did.”

In the fall of 2016, Cartagena raised issues about the hiring process and job duties of a new IEP teacher position at the school. The principal kept canceling the consultation meetings set to discuss the issue.

Around the same time, despite her seniority, Cartagena was denied her choice of teaching programs. When she told the principal she was going to file a reorganization grievance, he gave her a classroom assignment. But while she was out on medical leave that November, he reassigned her 2nd-grade students to other classes and gave her the original science cluster assignment that she had challenged.

That same school year, she filed a paperwork complaint on behalf of the school’s teachers regarding notebooks that the principal directed them to maintain.

In May 2018, the principal ordered her to immediately call a vote on a school-based option to change how the school provides professional development. After speaking with colleagues, Cartagena told the principal that members were divided about the change and she would not call the vote.

After the meeting ended, administration conducted an unscheduled observation of her class. Cartagena received a rating of Developing on her Measures of Teaching Practice for the 2017-18 school year. Cartagena filed an APPR complaint with the union. The arbitrator who heard her complaint found her evaluations were “impermissibly tainted” by Perdomo’s animus toward her and directed the principal to give her a higher rating.

In the 2018-19 school year, the principal filed 3020-a disciplinary charges against Cartagena for excessive absences during the prior school year. The hearing officer who heard those charges levied a fine of $6,000.

Bediako chastised District 7 officials as well as Perdomo and Assistant Principal Sharin Tirado, who in her testimony supported the principal’s version of the conflict in what Bediako called suspiciously similar language. He said they had failed to produce “legitimate business reasons that are not merely pretexts for retaliatory acts against Cartagena.”

The administrative law judge doubted the credibility of Perdomo’s ratings of Cartagena’s performance during his classroom observations and remarked on the curious similarity in the language he and Tirado used for separate observations.

Bediako also concluded that top school officials who brought charges against Cartagena for excessive absences excluded from her file a half-dozen notes she had submitted explaining her time off, which often involved caring for her ailing husband. He called it “ominous” that they weren’t in her file.

Cartagena said the ruling stunned her. “I don’t know how I feel,” she said. “It was a long, long struggle. It’s his school, and he’s gotten away with so much. It’s like when they used to call Gotti the Teflon Don. Perdomo was the same way — nothing stuck to him.”

PS 1’s current chapter leader, Sarah Carrubba, said the PERB decision “has been a long time coming.”

She said there had been no change in Perdomo’s behavior as the case against him proceeded, leaving members at the school wondering, “Why does this person keep getting away with this horrible treatment?”

Another teacher, Leslie Prokopy, who began at the school shortly before Cartagena became chapter leader, said of the ruling, “We felt like it was a victory for all of us.”

Cartagena said her battle with Perdomo is not over. He has a pending case against her and is “looking to get me fired,” she said.

UFT District 7 Representative Bill Woodruff, however, said the ruling would protect her and other UFT members across the city from further retaliation.

“This ruling shows you can hold principals accountable,” he said. “It really empowers our members and members at other schools to take control of their environments. They can’t be poorly treated. It just takes bravery to move forward.”