NEW YORK – Working within the system for improvement is the ideal with people for whom a job is more than a paycheck yet are not revolutionaries, but when the system turned against public school teacher Francesco (Francis) Portelos and presented him with the fight or flight option, there really was no choice.
“I’m Greek,” Portelos told TNH. “I have a fight in me and the gloves are off.” The opponent is the establishment United Federation of Teachers (UFT) establishment and he is running for its president in the New York Metropolitan Area on a reform platform.
Actually, he is Greek on the side of his mother Angeliki, who is from Ikaria, but he also gets his fire from his father Sebastian Giordano, who is from Sicily – una faccia, una razza.
Portelos’ parents met in the subway going to English language classes. He and his younger sister Christian grew up on Staten Island.
He studied civil and environmental engineering at Polytechnic University and worked in the field for seven years before his wife Angela, who is a teacher, made him realize “education is my path…and I never turned back.”
Their two boys are five and three and his wish for them to get the best public school education possible motivates his activism.
“I teach middle school” – a rough age – “in a very rough neighborhood in Staten Island near housing projects. The kids have parole officers and some are very over age. They should be in high school…but I loved it because I was given the freedom to create an engineering lab and I took my knowledge from Polytechnic U and my technological knowledge and created a lab. My robotics team was number one in New York,” he said.
“I got to the point where I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing what I loved doing. I took kids from broken homes and now they love graphic design and editing.”
“The principal loved me, and administration was recommending me to be an administrator myself,’ he told TNH.
That’s when he got more involved in the union, but that’s where his trouble began.
“I got involved in school leadership teams and budgeting but it turned out that the principle was involved in malfeasance…At the meetings I asked questions about the budget and it was game over for me. I became persona non grata and they came after me,” said Portelos.
Even the school’s union leader seemed to be acting on behalf of the principal.
“They tried to get me to shut up…but I called the Special Commissioner of Investigations with evidence showing she was two places at the same time – double dipping.”
He thought it was disgraceful that colleagues were forced to go to Radio Shack to buy wires for their computers.
He experienced casebook whistleblower retaliation, including having his computers seized at work and home.
On February 28, 2012, “I was hold holding my son…we were expecting our second child, so if they come after me, they come after my family I thought to myself. I put my son down, I opened up my laptop and created the website “Protect Portelos.”
“That site saved me. I got very good at documenting. I was exposing, making audio recordings. I became the Serpico of the DOE. It caught them off guard because people started reading it and the New York Post picked up the story.”
“I filed a federal lawsuit that will go to trial soon,” he said. It’s first amendment violation. I spoke up on matters of public concern and I was retaliated against. I ended up with 10,000 page of discovery they thought I’d never see…its one big mountain of corruption.”
He got out of the “rubber room” where teachers authorities don’t want in classrooms are parked, but he was rotated all over Staten Island in short-term assignments, including teaching.
“And all that time the union was nowhere to be found,” he said.
Portelos believes that the UFT leadership is now so close with officials of the Dept. of Education that it has become a “company union” where it works more in the interests of the company – in this case the UFT – than for the students and parents. “We want to bring it back to where it’s for the community, the students and the parents, and the teachers.
He created the “Solidarity” ticket and is taking on the establishment of one of the most powerful unions in the country in May when 200,000 UFT metropolitan area members will get a ballot in the mail.
“If I win,” he said, I’ll be the first New York City Dept. of Education parent to be the head of the teacher’s union. That will be huge. I have skin in the game as a father. When the UFT lobbies, it’s going to be aligned with the best interests of our students – and that hasn’t been the case in the last few years.”