An anniversary is fast approaching for a Spuyten Duyvil elementary school, but it’s not a happy one. In fact, what happened in October 2015 ultimately threw P.S. 24 into a tailspin after the city’s education department decided not to renew a lease renting space for extra classrooms at The Whitehall.
That displaced students who couldn’t fit into the main campus the following academic year, and no one had a plan for where to put them.
The resulting anger burned swift, hot and indiscriminate. It ultimately played a role in shaking up the school’s administration, including P.S. 24’s assistant principal, Manny Verdi, and has since been fodder for a pair of lawsuits Verdi has filed not just against the education department, but a state lawmaker as well he blames for trying to remove him.
The education department settled its suit with Verdi for $230,000 last year, but the libel complaint Verdi has against Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz trudges on. In it, Verdi accuses Dinowitz of publicly blaming him for losing the annex lease, and then used his position in the Assembly to pressure school officials to fire Verdi.
A large swath of discovery material was shared recently with The Riverdale Press, including hundreds of pages of depositions that provide some intriguing insight into one man’s fight against a powerful elected official.
That includes new details on events surrounding the 2015 announcement that The Whitehall lease was ending at 3333 Henry Hudson Parkway. A flurry of emails between education department employees, elected officials and parents were the first sign that few, if anyone, realized the lease was in peril. Former District 10 superintendent Melodie Mashel first mentioned the lease as a “potentially volatile issue” Oct. 1 when members of the P.S. 24 parent association heard Whitehall may not renew. Parents and school officials held an emergency meeting Oct. 21.
Tempers flared at the event. Dinowitz blamed Verdi and then principal Donna Connelly for losing the lease, according to the depositions. He accused Verdi specifically of “actively recruiting” out-of-zone students into the overcrowded school.
Verdi, on the other hand, accused Dinowitz of wanting to exclude kids from “down the hill,” according to the depositions, alluding to minority students from the Kingsbridge and Marble Hill neighborhoods.
Dinowitz told Verdi lawyer — and one-time political rival — Ezra Glaser during a two-day deposition he warned both administrators about the lease troubles as early as March during a school fundraiser. Verdi, however, claims that never happened. He derided Dinowitz for never calling a formal meeting with administrators about the lease, but jumped at the chance for a photo-op at the school.
But by then, the co-op had been on the verge of awarding the lease to a nursery school that offered a higher price than the schools, according to discovery materials.
During his deposition, Dinowitz acknowledged receiving a series of emails from Whitehall co-op president Jeffrey Moerdler — son of Dinowitz’s attorney Charles Moerdler — beginning in late 2014. The younger Moerdler wrote Dinowitz describing the School Construction Authority’s refusal to increase the lease price in the face of competition. Dinowitz was copied on the March 3, 2015 email to school officials telling them a lease was being drafted for someone else, and requested a timeline for when the school would vacate the space.
Shortly after the October meeting, Connelly retired, later telling The Press she felt bullied into leaving.
In his own deposition, Verdi said P.S. 24 had been overcrowded at least since he started working there in 2009. Expansion of the school’s gifted and talented program — a move Dinowitz reportedly advocated — allowed high-performing students from outside P.S. 24’s zone to attend. School policy allowed siblings of those students to attend the school as well.
Dinowitz told Glaser that several people — including a deputy school chancellor — informed him there were as many as 200 out-of-zone students at the school. After further questioning, however, Dinowitz admitted he had no proof of that claim, nor had he responded with the same urgency to overcrowding and academic crises in other schools within his district — like P.S. 207, once named one of the city’s most dangerous schools.
While Dinowitz was adamant Verdi was the major cause of losing the lease, Glaser pressed him on why during that time he’d not made calls to former schools chancellor Carmen Fariña or Mayor Bill de Blasio if the situation was so dire.
“I don’t remember specifically what I may have done, but we are not here about what I may have done or not,” Dinowitz said, according to the deposition. “The fact is the administration at the school did nothing, and they are the ones who are part of the DOE. They sat on their hands.”
The Assemblyman repeatedly stated Verdi was to blame for the school losing the annex lease because he knew and did nothing to “rally” the P.S. 24 community. Even after admitting that the School Construction Authority was the only body with the authority to negotiate the lease — not a vice principal — Dinowitz said Verdi could have done something to bring the issue to the community’s attention before it was too late to reverse.
Verdi told The Press he had no control over negotiations, and that Dinowitz knew talks between school officials and The Whitehall were breaking down long before he mentioned it to P.S. 24 administrators. When parents began pointing fingers at elected officials, Verdi said, Dinowitz shifted blame to others.
“I had no control over the lease,” the former administrator said. “They would have lost the lease if negotiations fell apart, even if I wasn’t there.”
Charles Moerdler disagrees, saying his client gave Verdi information that a school leader should have used to mobilize others.
“In some communities, there are public officials who organize boycotts, organize protests, rallies and the like,” Moerdler told The Press. “In others, there are people who try and do it within a more low-scale kind of atmosphere.
“Personally, I like throwing bombs.”