Stories & Grievances
Booker T. Washington Middle School 54, Grievance Brings Retaliation
How do Federal, State, and City funds follow special needs children not listed on the school roster? Why did the New York State and New York City Departments of Education, the Mayor, the New York State Assembly, the Corporation Counsel, NYC DOE Office of External Affairs and Office of Legal Affairs as well as a small select group of parents conspire to silence questions about an alleged more than $600,000 missing funds, a fraudulent Comprehensive Education Plan, a missing Barnes & Noble check, and more than 10 full-inclusion students who never received their Special Education services because they were not on the school roster? Why did the Corporation Counsel fraudulently indemnify the parents of the MS 54 Review Committee? The story of how whistleblowing the NYC DOE brings retaliation.
by Betsy Combier
Accountable Action: MS 54 and the PTA Review Committee
Booker T. Washington MS 54:
A Grievance Brings Retaliation and the First-Ever PTA Review Committee
From the former PTA President Betsy Combier:
I am the parent of four children, and I believe that every child must receive an opportunity to achieve his or her 'personal best' in school, and all children are equal in terms of value to our nation's future.
The problem that changed my life began because I thought that the job of PTA President was to comply with all regulations in the A-660s or Chancellor's Regulations, raise money for the school, make sure that the supplies and services for all the students were available, and to report suspected non-compliance with the regulations or the Law to "Central", (the New York City Board/Department of Education), the Superintendent, and the Chancellor. I was wrong. The Board of Education under Mayor Bloomberg wants all PTA Presidents to do whatever they, the NYC BOE, says, without question. This same job description is used for the Community Education Councils (CDECs) in each District as well as the Panel For Educational Policy (PEP) and every other position under the Chancellor that exists in New York City and the boroughs. If fraud or corruption are discovered, you must keep silent, or be harassed out of your job. This is exactly what happened to me, with the addition of my children being hurt as well since I did not go quietly.
I was elected Co-President of the Booker T. Washington MS 54 PTA in May, 1999; PTA President in May 2000, and again in May 2001. As PTA Co-President and President, I was given documents such as the Transparent Budget for the school, the School expenditures, and all the memos from the then-Board of Education. The office staff copied the ATS roster for me because I wanted to set up class parents for every class, and make sure that we had the widest information distribution that the school had ever had. I spent many evenings on the telephone with parents discussing the school, the Principal, and the many tests and regulations sent from the BOE because I believed that I was accountable to every parent and child in the building, and I had no other agenda.
Booker T. Washington Middle School 54 is located officially at 103 West 107th Street in Manhattan, but the main entrance is on 108th street. The area is called "Manhattan Valley" and has a large Hispanic and growing West Indian population. Booker T., as we call the school, has been almost on the SURR school list 'School Under Registration Review' for many years until the Delta Honors Program was placed there more than 15 years ago.
The Delta program was started by Mr. Fred La Senna, who remains the Administrator today, and District 3 Superintendent Patricia Romandetto. I was told by members of the School Board that they wanted an academically rigorous middle school to accommodate the highly gifted kids accepted into the nearby PS 9 Anderson Program (a K-5 elementary school). We parents believed that another benefit for the District would be to mask the failing programs in the school with the high-performing Delta Program, so that the Chancellor could not take over the school and have control over the allocation of City, State, and Federal funds. Mrs. Romandetto and Mr. Fred La Senna were very successful in establishing a much sought after program because he was given the freedom to accept anyone he wanted into the program, he could hire any teachers and get funded for textbooks and resources, all with the blessing of Mrs. Romandetto. There is, however, a very high level of resentment among the kids in the various programs as the Delta students seemed to receive everything they need and are predominantly white, while the kids in the other four programs more often than not receive handouts instead of books, have the same teacher for every subject, and are not "permitted" to apply to the Specialized High Schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech) by the guidance office.
Unfortunately the income levels of the parents whose children were accepted into the Delta Honors Program pushed the school off of the TITLE 1 list in 2000. Both Mrs. Romandetto and Mr. Lynch confided in me as PTA President that indeed they did obtain Title 1 funding for the 2000-2001 school year even though they were not really supposed to. The other programs in the building were: NOVA, the community program with the model full inclusion program for New York City; El Camino, the bi-lingual Program; Manhattan Valley, for Special Education children, and VISTA/Olympiad, for bi-lingual special education students.
Parents saw that there did not seem to be equal allocations among the 5 programs at Booker T., and I was asked many questions. Examples of the questions I and other parents asked:
1. Where are the paraprofessionals, other services, and funding for the Full-Inclusion NOVA students? How does money follow students not on the school roster?
The PTA Executive Board could not find the Special Education/full inclusion money and/or services supposedly designated for 10+ students placed in the NOVA Program. None of these children were ever listed as attending Booker T. Washington, even though all of them attended the school full-time, and they all remained on the roster of the restricted environment school P811M. The Committee for Special Education told me that this process served the children because they remained on the roster of the school at which the teachers sent to Booker T. were paid. They told me, however, that the only school that did not provide the appropriate services under this plan was Booker T. Washington because the Principal refused to comply with the students' IEPs and the services listed therein. As a result, the parents of these children were not given their child's Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), their children were given very few, if any, services as required by IDEA, and their teachers did not even know that these children had any special needs. Some of these kids would be thrown into the hallway of the school if they did not understand something happening in the classroom, and the Principal would then put them into the suspension room or throw them out of the school altogether. Principal Lynch seemed to be particularly focused on getting student Timmy, Johnnie Mae's son, out of the building any way he could. He suspended Timmy so many times Johnnie Mae tripped them up when she got the call to come to the school to pick up her son: she asked to speak to her son's teacher. As Timmy was not on the roster, the school could not have Johnnie Mae speak with the teacher. Timmy's report card was hand-written. Johnnie Mae received a letter about a suspension of her son which was mailed 4 days after the suspension and 4 days after the meeting with the Principal. The CSE reported this to the State, and then pulled the plug on this part NOVA Program in 2002. The Region 10 CSE told the E-Accountability Foundation in August, 2004, that Mr. Lynch STILL refused to give any child the special education services he/she deserved.
NOVA parents told me that when they complained about their children not receiving homework assignments their teachers said "Your children don't do their homework anyway." The parents of children in full inclusion as well as in general education in the NOVA Program told me that their children were not given any textbooks. MS 54, even with the Delta Program in the building, has not met it's Annual Yearly Progress levels in more than 4 years. This means that, under "No Child Left Behind", MS 54 is a school in need of improvement. NOVA parents were never given an option to transfer, as the Delta Program masks the low achievement statistics on performance in the other programs and the income levels of the Delta students pushed the school off the Titile 1 funding list. Therefore, if the Delta Program could keep the school from being named a "school in need of improvement", then City, State and Federal money could be sent to the District 3 offices for other uses and Booker T. would not be declared a SURR School.
A Freedom of Information (FOIL) request to the Department of Education's Office of Legal Services' Records Access Officer to obtain the transparent budget of District 75, the District which handles Special Education services in New York City, was denied. District 75 personnel told me that these records were confidential, and why was I asking? Susan Holtzman at the Office of Legal Services sent me ½ page all blacked out, and then misled Mr. Robert Freeman, chair of the Committee on Open Government in Albany by telling him I had received everything I had asked for. He told me that it was against the Law to send me the information twice.
2. Chemical Bank, #3690467: whose account was it? Where is Extended Day?
What was the MS 54 Bank account (closed in June, 2001) at Chemical Bank with the EIN # 3690467? I was told two years ago that this EIN # was the number to the school bank account, but I have recently become aware that it was not. As elected Co-President and President of the PTA, I was disturbed to see that our Extended Day Program was allocated more than $260,000 for the years 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 on a line for a 21st Century grant. I knew that the kids were being sent home without attending any classes because I received many calls from parents who told me their kids were wandering the neighborhood for several hours. The classrooms were locked, and the teachers did not show up. Classes were inexplicably cancelled. Teachers who had signed up to teach classes on the Extended Day schedule told me that they were not paid. The PTA Budget Committee requested the allocations for the After School, or the classes that were open, and we received insufficient data in response. The Principal Mr. Lynch simply would not agree to meet with us about the program and the money.
3. Where is the Barnes & Noble check for $13,783.77?
On December 13, 1999, the MS 54 PTA had a fundraiser event for the MS 54 PTA at Barnes & Noble, and we raised a record amount of $13,783.77. I co-signed the contract with Barnes & Noble as PTA Co-Chair. In February 2000 the Principal said he had to give the check to the Superintendant of District 3. The District 3 representative in the Office of Parent Engagement told me not to pursue finding out what happened. I disagreed with her, as I said that we needed the money. On Saturday, November 3, 2001, I received a letter from Mr. Richard Switach, Office of Special Investigations, Board of Education, that our Barnes & Noble check had been deposited into a BOE bank account by Mrs. Romandetto. We never got the money returned to the PTA, except for $1300 returned in April, 2002, after the DOE told us that the rest had been spent. Parents protested because we never "loaned" the Board of Education this money. It was the MS 54 PTA's responsibility to vote on where these funds should go, and we were never allowed to do this.
4. How Could the DOE accept a fraudulent Comprehensive Education Plan?
During the 2000-2001 school year we on the School Leadership Team (SLT) worked very hard to write a Comprehensive Education Plan (CEP), which is a funding plan for the school and all programs within it. The Comprehensive Education Plan (CEP) which the SLT worked on was signed by all 18 members of the Team and handed in the end of April, 2001 even though we knew there was no graphs or charts in it. All of us on the Team (I, as PTA President was a core member) knew that we did not have adequate information in this document, but we were told to just hand in what we had. On May 23, 2001, Renee Minkowitz from the Board of Education Central office met with the SLT core members, including myself, and told us that our CEP was not acceptable, and had been handed in to Central without a signature page. The Principal and Superintendent had inexplicably listed the school as a Title I school, even though it was not. Did Booker T get, therefore, Title 1 money during the 2000-2001 school year, without any reporting of these funds to the teachers and parents? If so, where is the money? None of the SLT parents at this meeting understood why Ms. Minkowitz had a CEP without any signatures, as we had handed in the CEP in April with the signatures of the Team on the signature page. It was missing. After getting elected to the position once again of PTA President on May 23, 2001 I picked up the "new" CEP up at the District 3 office at the beginning of August 2001 and saw that there were graphs and disaggregated data which were not in the original, and, I discovered later, were written by the Principal, the UFT rep for the school, and two parent members of the Team, Amy Frawley and Sue Schneider, at the end of the school year without the knowledge of the rest of the Team. I noticed that this document had NOVA students going to Beacon at 12:30PM, and I asked "To what?" The Beacon contract did not begin until 3PM any day of the week. I was surprised to see that a copy of the "missing" signature page from the original document submitted to the District in April was stapled to the front of this new one. We have no idea whether any data in the new document was valid. The Chair of the School Leadership Team, Michelle Parker, refused to discuss the CEP, the actions of the Principal, or any matter related to the segregation in the school building. She infuriated the parents who were not in the Delta program, but they could not do anything about unseating her because they were never told when the PA or SLT meetings were taking place, so they could not attend.
5. Why was District 3 Superintendent Patricia Romandetto in debt in 2001?
Another question many parents were asking was, "Why is Mrs. Romandetto $1-2 million in debt for the District?" (NYTimes, March 6 & 7 2001, Anemona Hartocollis). When the first article was printed in The New York Times the Principal fired 5 teachers outright. The next day he told them to forget it.
Who stops the harassment of parents by a Principal, teacher, and/or District Superintendent?
I have been told by Officials at the BOE that these issues are never looked at by anyone at the New York City or New York State Department of Education. On June 5, 2001, I delivered a grievance to the District 3 School Board asking the questions listed above. On June 7, 2001 DJ Sheppard, the BOE representative for District 3, attended the PTA meeting and told me I had to resign for filing the grievance. As I had been just re-elected unanimously on May 23, 2001, and as the Chancellor's Regulations give anyone the right to file a grievance and receive no retaliation for filing it (Section 1 E.1 h & i), I refused, but left the meeting when the screaming and abusive language became out of control. The next day I was emailed the "minutes" of the meeting, written by the "new" PTA President put into my position by DJ because, she told everyone, I had resigned. I sent an email stating I did NOT resign. On June 13, 2001 after the SLT meeting I was told by the Principal that I was no longer PTA President and he would arrest me if I ever entered the school again. I asked him what would happen when I attended parent events at the school, and he told me that he would put me "under guard", meaning he would have me accompanied by a security guard at all times. I asked him what the police charges would be if he saw me in the building, and he told me he would make something up, and, he added, "who will they believe, you or me"?
On June 25 2001 the two parents who wrote the fraudulent CEP, DJ, the District 3 office, and Rosa Fenton from the BOE, convened a secret Special PTA meeting to set up a Review Committee to investigate charges of incompetency which the two parents wrote I had demonstrated as PTA President.I believe that the BOE "Review Committee" policy statement exposes the illegal retaliation of NYC educrats. But nothing I said made any difference.
The Review Committee spent the summer in the District 3 office writing a letter to all the parents in the school, with technical assistance from 110 Livingston Street.(EMAILS) This letter violated Education Law Article I Section 2-a. The Principal told everyone that I was a liar, a person without integrity, and that he would never work with me. I was not allowed to ask what I was lying about, or why the formal grievance against me had been filed in the District 3 office 2 hours before the June 25th meeting without my knowing anything about it. Rosa Fenton would not allow any discussion of the grievance I had filed on June 5.
On September 20, 2001, almost 1 month after the deadline of the Review Committee (given 60 days from June 27) the MS 54 Executive Board voted to end the Review Committee, and start the new year strong.
Mrs. Romandetto re-convened the Review Committee on October 4, with a "Fact Sheet" handed out by DJ Sheppard at the first General PTA meeting for MS 54 without the knowledge of the MS 54 Executive Board. Most of the parents attending this meeting for the PTA left in anger at the absurdity of this notice, and never returned to any PTA meeting the rest of the year. I was blamed, because I did not resign quietly. My daughter in 7th grade was dragged through the yard and came home a bloody mess.
Also at the first PTA meeting of the year on October 4 a letter was distributed by Ms. Gwen Hopkins from the Office of Parent Outreach, BOE, recommending that Larry Lynch, Principal, keep the key to all the PTA financial records as I had "raised excessive amounts of money and did not know what to do with it". The Principal stopped all fundraising. At the first Review Committee meeting on October 16 an email address was set up, "firstname.lastname@example.org" so that the Review Committee could ask parents to email their comments about me. I was assured that I would never be told anything.
Suddenly Mrs. Romandetto and DJ Sheppard called for a Special PTA meeting
on Monday, Nov. 5 so that the Review Committee could vote me out of office early, before the November 15 PTA meeting. I heard from the school staff that Mrs. Romandetto was worried that I was getting more and more parents, especially in the NOVA Program, to support me. DJ Sheppard demanded that I violate the MS 54 Bylaws, and send out a notice that a Special PTA meeting would have a vote on the PTA President (against the rules) and wrote in her email that the BOE Office of Legal Affairs and External Relations had demanded this as well. On November 2 I called Anemona Hartocollis at the New York Times, a parent in the school, and she told me that she had received an email from another parent telling all parents that I had to be removed because I had accused the Treasurer and Principal of things which Mr. Edward Stancik had proven were not true. This was false information. Nonetheless, the Review Committee, DJ Sheppard, Roni Wattman and David Isaacs from the District 3 School Board, as well as MS 54 SLT Chair Michelle Parker all attended the November 5 Special PTA meeting at which Larry Lynch repeated that I was a liar. I was voted out of the PTA by a group of invited parents who would not allow me to speak about the actions I was being accused of which I did not do.
I wrote a Freedom of Information request of the BOE Office of Legal Services and was sent a few letters from members of the Review Committee and from the parents who filed the original grievance against me. One of the Review Committee members accused me of putting my own daughter in danger because I would not resign. Subsequently the members of the Review Committee took over the PTA Executive Board, Jenny Nelson and Loretta Williams. Another member, Ann Pejovich, was hired as the Parent Coordinator as her "reward" for her attack against me. The Corporation Counsel fraudulently gave her immunity in a "contract" that was accidentally mailed to me.
On September 28, 2001, I wrote a Verified Petition to Commissioner Richard Mills of the New York State Education Department in Albany, and told him that there were many questions at MS 54. I asked for a STAY on the Review committee. The Commissioner refused, and when I called his office to ask why, I was told he never gives explanations for his decisions. The Commissioner never answered the complaint until January, 2003, after I had written a letter to the Governor and all the Regents. He stated that as so much time had passed that the allegations presented in my letter were no longer valid.
On March 29, 2002 I emailed all the members of the City Council and New York State Assembly Education Committee, as well as Chancellor Levy, Mr. Burt Sacks, and a few others the situation at MS 54 described above, and only two people replied, Chancellor Harold Levy (March 29) and Chad Vignola, (April 1, 2002) Chief Counsel in the Office of Legal Services:
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