As more chronically underpaid teachers at Fort Hamilton High School seek redress, the school’s beleaguered principal appears to be planning her exit, according to multiple people close to the school.
As GothamSchools first reported in August, the Department of Education is investigating a cost-cutting payroll scheme engineered by Principal Jo Ann Chester, who hired teachers and paid them a lower substitute rate, even as they stayed on full-time for months. Some of the people taught for over a year.
Previously, just two of the 14 eligible teachers had filed grievances for backpay. But that number has increased in recent weeks and is likely to include even more, a union official said, meaning the school could be on the hook for up to $300,000.
Here are more details on the scheme from our August report:
According to multiple sources, Chester contrived a system to use substitute teachers for more than a year at a time without adding them to the school’s teaching roster, which would have required them to be paid more, or bumping them up to different pay rate for long-term substitute teachers.
Then, she fudged documents to make sure that the teachers did not show up in the Department of Education’s payroll system, the sources said. On daily attendance sheets and student report cards, Chester replaced each substitute teacher’s name with the last name of an assistant principal and the first initial of the first name of the sub.
The probe seems poised to continue without Chester in charge at the 4,200-student Bay Ridge school. A source with knowledge of the school said she was planning to retire and that her departure was ‘imminent’. Multiple sources said that Chester was not expected to return tomorrow when classes resume from the Rosh Hashanah holiday break.In emails, Chester declined to comment. A city spokeswoman said no changes in leadership have been made.
But Chester was seen quietly cleaning out her office all of last week and a moving truck was spotted in the parking lot on Thursday night. By Friday, the office was empty.
“She left quieter than a mouse,” one teacher said. “We’re not expecting her to return Wednesday.”
Coaches and players for the Fort Hamilton football team who were at the school Monday morning for practice said that they were not aware of any changes in leadership at the school. They said Chester addressed them on Friday and did not make any announcements about leaving the school.
The school was already under investigation because of test scores that the city deemed suspicious. The Department of Education referred the school to the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation in February after an internal audit concluded that some Fort Hamilton students had gotten passing grades on Regents exams when they should have failed.
A union official said this week that more than half of the 14 full-time teachers who were paid as subs have now filed grievances. The official said that a payroll representative has reviewed the cases and described them as “open and shut,” meaning that hundreds of thousand of dollars could eventually be paid back.
Fort Hamilton’s operating budget would be on the hook for all backpay that is given out. The short-term rates for substitute teachers are $155 per day, which comes out to just under $28,000 in annual salary. A first-year teacher’s salary — $45,000 — equates to $250 per day, so teachers who worked as substitutes for a least one school year could be due more than $17,000. That total would increase based on teacher certifications and years of experience.