‘SETS PRECEDENT’: After a tangled legal battle, whistleblower Teacher Francesco Portelos won a victory when a State Supreme Court Justice ordered that a notice of a Public Employment Relations Board decision that the Department of Education acted improperly against him be posted across the school system. ‘I hope this can help members not to be afraid to speak up and get involved in union activity,’ the Teacher said.

An outspoken Teacher hopes that notices related to the Public Employment Relations Board decision that the Department of Education acted improperly against him that have recently been posted inside city public schools will discourage administrators from retaliating against whistleblowers.

The documents, which were put up more than a year-and-a-half after PERB made its ruling, were “a win for members who were retaliated against with very little recourse,” said Francesco Portelos, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Teacher.

Complaint Begat Payback

In early 2012, Mr. Portelos filed a complaint that the Principal at his previous school, I.S. 49, had misused school funds. In turn, he received a negative classroom observation, with the DOE lodging three dozen claims against the chapter leader, removing him from the classroom and attempting to terminate him. That same year, Mr. Portelos filed an improper practice charge with PERB, alleging that the DOE had violated civil service laws by punishing him for his union activities.

The result was a tangled legal battle, and in May 2014, hearing officer Felice Busto found no evidence to substantiate the majority of the claims, blocking the DOE’s attempt to fire him. But she found Mr. Portelos guilty of a few charges, including improperly accessing a DOE email account and sharing confidential information online, and fined him $10,000. 

The school's former Principal, Linda Hill, was found to have double-dipped on overtime payments.

In April 2017, Administrative Law Judge Angela M. Blassman found that school officials disciplined the chapter leader for sending union-related emails and other protected union activity, and received a negative classroom observation that was “improperly motivated.”

She ordered the DOE to “cease and desist from issuing disciplinary and negative letters…against Portelos in retaliation for engaging in protected activity” and to “purge Portelos’ personnel file of the unsatisfactory observation and not consider the contents of such observation for any purpose.”

DOE Ignored Order

The decision also stated that the DOE was required to “sign and post the attached [PERB notice] to employees at all physical and electronic locations customarily used to communicate with” members of the United Federation of Teachers, Mr. Portelos’ union.

But that never happened, Mr. Portelos said, adding that he believed the DOE did not post the notice because it was “embarrassing.” 

In August 2018, he informed PERB that the DOE had not complied with the Judge’s order, and after it notified the DOE, school officials created a link to the notice within the labor relations page on its Employee InfoHub website in lieu of posting the document in all of the city’s 1,800 public schools.

On Nov. 26, 2019, State Supreme Court Justice Christina L. Ryba determined that posting the notice “at a single electronic location buried within” the DOE’s website fell short of satisfying PERB’s mandate. She also noted that doing so was “insufficient to fulfill the purpose of the posting requirement, which is to provide employees with sufficient notice of the improper practice finding so as to dispel the coercive effect of those improper practices,” and ordered the DOE to post physical copies of the notice as well.

The notices went up late last month, according to the agency. Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the DOE, said that it was "complying with the current court order by instructing that the PERB notice be posted for 30 days, and by emailing this notice to all Teachers.”

‘Sets a Precedent’

Mr. Portelos said that when he first saw the document hanging on a wall at his current school, I.S. 27, after returning to work from winter break, it “felt really good.”

“I think this sets a precedent because there have been so many cases, many of which haven’t gone to PERB, where union activity has caused retaliation,” he said of the decision. “The school system should be about education, and Teachers shouldn’t have to worry about retaliation. I hope this can help members not to be afraid to speak up and get involved in union activity.”

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