The Spuyten Duyvil School’s (P.S. 24) Assistant Principal Manny Verdi says northwest Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is seeking to keep minority and lower-income students out of the school, one of several bombshell allegations in a suit he filed on Tuesday against the Department of Education (DOE), Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and District 10 Superintendent Melodie Mashel.
Mr. Verdi alleges that Mr. Dinowitz’s Chief of Staff Randi Martos reviewed applications for prospective kindergarten students on school grounds from March 25 to April 1 with an eye to preventing minorities and lower-income children from enrolling. Further, Mr. Verdi claims that since he filed a complaint with the New York City Special Commissioner of Investigation last month, Ms. Mashel intends to fire, demote or otherwise punish him — the latest in a series of alleged efforts by the superintendent to remove the assistant principal.
Mr. Verdi referred press inquiries to his lawyer Ezra Glaser.
“Do parents know that some political hack is going through kids’ records, has access to their records?” he said. “It’s a phony racist political football that they’ve created. There’s never been any proof whatsover that people who aren’t from the district are coming in.”
[Find out about Mr. Dinowitz and Mr. Glaser's history at this link.]
Mr. Dinowitz confirmed that Ms. Martos went to P.S. 24 to help review prospective kindergartners’ applications, but strongly denied any intent to prevent minority and lower-income students from enrolling. Mr. Verdi claims that Ms. Martos’ presence violated the Civil Rights Act, the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, but Mr. Dinowitz denied that Ms. Martos had access to students’ medical records or anything other than the two proofs of address required to enroll at P.S. 24; Mr. Verdi claimed Ms. Martos was in fact requiring parents to show three proofs of address, which Mr. Glaser described as an intentional extra hurdle.
“In a desperate attempt to create a smokescreen to divert attention from the fact that he’s the main reason for the severe overcrowding crisis at P.S. 24, Manny Verdi has brought a lawsuit containing one lie after another,” Mr. Dinowitz said.
The assistant principal claimed that Ms. Mashel began targeting him after an Oct. 21 parents’ association meeting in which parents were furious to learn that city authorities had failed to renew a lease for an off-site annex for nearly 150 fifth-grade students. At the meeting, a reporter saw a heated exchange between Mr. Verdi and Mr. Dinowitz, with each man seeming to blame the other for failing to prevent the loss of the lease.
“You never miss a photo op, but you did not come into our office to discuss this matter,” Mr. Verdi told Mr. Dinowitz in front of dozens of parents. “This is beyond our scope of doing this.”
Mr. Verdi’s suit said after the meeting, Ms. Mashel and local elected officials conspired to remove Mr. Verdi from P.S. 24. The suit said after then-Principal Donna Connelly refused a request from Ms. Mashel to “write up” Mr. Verdi for “usurping the Principal’s authority,” Ms. Connelly “chose to retire to avoid future confrontations with local officials and the school administration.”
Ms. Connelly recently told The Press she felt bullied in the aftermath of the October parents’ association meeting.
Mr. Verdi’s suit claimed that since Assistant Principal Andrea Feldman became the interim principal in the fall, Ms. Mashel told Ms. Feldman to fire Mr. Verdi if Ms. Feldman wanted to become the permanent principal.
Last week, the DOE announced it was delaying the hiring of a new principal so it could conduct an investigation into the process so far. The department did not specify the cause of the investigation, but it appears Mr. Verdi’s complaints may have been the reason.
On Monday night, Ms. Mashel and other school officials met with about 100 P.S. 24 parents to address a recent letter from the parents’ association calling for the speedy appointment of a new principal and an explanation for why the process was halted, among other demands. People who attended the meeting said Ms. Mashel said it could take months to resolve the investigation, outraging parents.
“To protect the due process of one or two complainants, on the one hand, against the needs of 1,000 students didn’t make any sense to us,” said PA co-president Bob Heisler.
Parents also were worried about the fate of next school year’s fifth-grade students. Since P.S. 24 lost the lease for the annex, the DOE is planning to convert the school’s cold lunchroom and three adjacent rooms into classrooms. Work is expected to begin over the summer.
Mr. Dinowitz blamed the overcrowding at P.S. 24 — a building built for about 500 students that has a population around double that — on Mr. Verdi.
“He alone is responsible for that school not having a principal and this overcrowding crisis would not have happened but for Manny Verdi,” the assemblyman said. “For whatever reasons, he thought it advisable to enroll more and more students at that school. If the school had empty seats, I would welcome them. But when the school is overcrowded, you can’t do that.”
Mr. Verdi’s suit claims that Mr. Dinowitz’s intent to keep minority and lower-income students out of P.S. 24 was evident from remarks in two meetings. Mr. Verdi claimed that in one, in 2009, Mr. Dinowitz said “he knows who the children are that are not from Riverdale ‘by the way they walk, talk and wear their pants.’” The assemblyman has denied making any such remarks.
Mr. Dinowitz said that when Ms. Martos sought to help P.S. 24 process kindergarten applications in the spring, most families were approved. Asked how many families she may have found lacking adequate proof of residency, he did not know. He also did not know their ethnic background.
The student body at P.S. 24 was 45.7 percent white, 37.6 percent Latino, 7.1 percent Asian or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and 7.1 percent black in the 2013-14 school year, according to DOE stats.
The DOE referred an inquiry about Mr. Verdi’s suit to the city’s Law Department, which provided a short statement saying, “We will review the complaint.”
The suit said Ms. Mashel was scheduled to meet with Mr. Verdi on Wednesday, May 4. While the document said the assistant principal originally expected punitive action to take place at that meeting, on Tuesday, Mr. Glaser said he did not know what will happen. The suit said Mr. Verdi wants damages for interference with his contract and violations of his rights as a whistleblower, but Mr. Glaser indicated it was still possible for the situation to be resolved out of court.
“I want to see what plays out in terms of what happens from May 4 and what kind of retribution they might take against my client,” he said.
Due to a typo, a previous version of this story incorrectly said the student body at P.S. 24 was 3.6 percent Latino in the 2013-14 school year