In a move they described as unprofessional and unethical, several teachers and staff members of Riverwalk Academy in Rock Hill have said they learned this month they would not have a job next year.
“We usually receive our contracts sometime in April or the beginning of May,” said Katie Arevalo, who served two years as the school’s physical education and health teacher.
Arevelo said she became worried near the end of May when she had not heard if her contract with Riverwalk would be extended. She said other staff members had received extenisons.
Arevelo said she spoke with administrators at Riverwalk on May 22 and was told there had been a problem with the salary account spreadsheet and they were working to get the contracts re-typed. On June 8, Arevelo said she, along with other staff members, was unable to access their Riverwalk e-mail accounts.
Around 7:25 a.m. on June 9, Arevelo said she was one of several staff members to be informed via e-mail to their personal accounts that they would not have a job next year.
“This information came as a shock to me because in the two years of employment at this school I have received no verbal or written comments related to my work performance in a negative manner,” she said. “Although I understand the contracts are at-will, I was lead to believe I would have a job next year. Receiving notice via e-mail that my contract would not be renewed was both unprofessional and unethical.”
Receiving notice via e-mail that my contract would not be renewed was both unprofessional and unethical.
Katie Arevalo, former employee
Riverwalk is a public charter school in Rock Hill. The Riverwalk Academy charter states:
“At-will employment allows both employer and employee the right to terminate employment at any time without cause or reason. Unless employers terminate their employees for discriminatory reasons or perform large layoffs, employers are generally under no legal obligation to provide notice of termination. Riverwalk will provide at-will contracts to all employees. Upon the dismissal of an employee, an appeal may be made to the (Board of Directors) within 10 days of notification of termination.”
The policy complies with the South Carolina Charter School Act’s requirement for a reasonable grievance and termination procedure, said Taylor Fulcher, director of communications for the South Carolina Public School District, which includes the state’s public charter schools.
Riverwalk does not have to comply with state law, which says the board of trustees of public school districts must give employees notice by May 1 concerning their reemployment, Fulcher said.
“In the district’s view, Riverwalk therefore is not required to comply with the Teacher Dismissal Act and is in compliance with the Charter School Act,” she said.
Former Riverwalk staff members said they had been told June 8 was an optional teacher work day.
According to a screen shot provided to The Herald, the e-mail one teacher received on June 9 from Mandi Parker, student services director, states: “I’m sorry to reach out to you via email, but I did not see you yesterday at the school to speak to you in person. We will not be extending an at-will to you for the upcoming school year.”
Riverwalk Academy Principal Cora Stepp said the school cannot publicly comment on personnel matters, but “each spring, Riverwalk Academy assesses the school’s personnel needs for the upcoming school year and makes employment decisions accordingly.”
Each spring, Riverwalk Academy assesses the school’s personnel needs for the upcoming school year and makes employment decisions accordingly.
Cora Stepp, Riverwalk Academy principal
Riverwalk Academy had 33 full-time teachers for the 2016-17 school year and expects to have 48 for the 2017-18 school year, Stepp said. At the end of the 2016-17 school year, Riverwalk had 486 students, Fulcher said.
“We are in the process of filling open positions,” Stepp said.
On June 15, Arevelo joined about 20 parents, former Riverwalk employees and community members outside the school to air grievances against Riverwalk’s school board and the administration’s actions this school year. The group had planned to address Riverwalk’s board members during their special called meeting, but the meeting was cancelled. Stepp said the meeting could not take place because there weren’t enough board members present.
“Riverwalk Academy generally allows public comment at its regular meetings, but does not allow public comment at special called meetings,” Stepp said.
Board chair Mariann Carter told the former staff members they could address the board during the July 17 regular board meeting.
Former staff members shared similar stories. Jane Guissinger, Riverwalk’s former receptionist, said she recieved the same termination e-mail on June 9 at 7:24 a.m.
“Although I understand it is not required, I would have expected some justification would be offered to an employee who has been here since the beginning of Riverwalk Academy, has a day on the Riverwalk calendar named after her and has donated hundreds of volunteer hours to it,” she said.
Before receiving the termination notice, Guissinger said she was told there was an accounting problem with salaries and that contracts would be coming. However, Guissinger said other employees had their contracts weeks earlier.
“Knowing that saying goodbye to my students and their families will never happen is crushing and I want to be sure they know that I did not leave them voluntarily,” she said. “I have worked in several school districts for 35 years and have never been treated as poorly as I have here at Riverwalk under this current administration.”
I have worked in several school districts for 35 years and have never been treated as poorly as I have here at Riverwalk under this current administration.
Jane Guissinger, former employee