Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How the Chancellor and Mayor have allowed DOE's reputation to be sullied by refusing to clean house

In a piece in yesterday’s Gotham Gazette, I tried to put the recent credit recovery scandals in context and proposed an alternative vision for NYC struggling schools.  Please take a look and let me know what you think!

In that article, I noted that despite many months of pleading by teachers, and numerous exposes featured in the newspapers and on TV, DOE’s internal investigative unit, called the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), dragged its feet before confirming that Dewey HS principal had engaged in an illegitimate credit recovery scheme to boost graduation rates.   In the meantime, the Chancellor and the Mayor both minimized the news stories that had offered voluminous evidence pointing to her corruption.  In March, de Blasio said, referring to the internal DOE investigative arm:  

I don’t assume because some teachers talked to you that that’s the whole truth. I believe very, very strongly in the quality of our investigations unit. I have absolute faith in the integrity of that unit.”

As I pointed out, the OSI is absolutely notorious among teachers for their bullying tactics, biased treatment and shabby reports, in which they generally support the principal’s position or whoever happens to be in favor among the top brass at Tweed. 

Well, yesterday, Special Investigator Richard Condon blasted DOE and OSI, about their shocking treatment of Debra Fisher, an occupational therapist who was suspended from her school for helping one of her disabled students raise money to write a book.  Condon's report pointed out how the OSI had made all sorts of false and unsupported accusations concerning Fisher’s supposed conflicts of interest.  Below is an excerpt from Condon's press release; here is his report.  

“Today, Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard J. Condon released a report detailing an investigation which found that Wei Liu, a Confidential Investigator assigned to the Department of Education (DOE) Office of Special Investigations (OSI), made inaccurate statements and drew inaccurate conclusions in an OSI report substantiating misconduct on the part of Occupational Therapist Debra Fisher, assigned to PS 333 in Manhattan. The statements and conclusions were at least partially responsible for Liu’s substantiated findings in the OSI case, which resulted in the DOE taking disciplinary action against Fisher. The SCI investigation also substantiated, more generally, that OSI investigators and their investigations do not receive adequate supervision. [emphasis added]“

Fisher’s despicable treatment by the DOE had been highlighted in several columns by Jim Dwyer in the NY Times as well as an article in the Daily News, and she is now suing DOE for back pay and to have the disciplinary letter removed from her file.  Last fall, Dwyer described Fisher’s plight this way: 

This is a story of an almost unfathomably mindless school bureaucracy at work: the crushing of an occupational therapist who had helped a young boy build a record of blazing success…  A person working to excel is being hammered by an investigative agency that began its hunt in search of cheating on tests and record-keeping irregularities. It found nothing of the sort. Instead, the investigation produced a misleading report, filled with holes, on the fund-raising effort.  

Dwyer followed up in January, about the fact that she was suing the DOE for back pay and adding,  

Ms. Fisher relentlessly nudges people — including complete strangers — to help her physically challenged students in and out of school, finding housing, arranging swimming lessons, bringing in coders from Tumblr to speak with classes, creating an after-school arts program…. In reality, the fund-raising effort was supported by the entire school, starting with the principal, who wrote emails to the staff about the project. When the Kickstarter appeal met its goal, the success was celebrated at a town-hall meeting in the school auditorium.

Condon’s report also makes clear that it’s not just a matter of lax oversight by the attorneys in the General Counsel’s office, who are supposed to supervise these reports.  There was also poor judgement shown by DOE attorneys, including Senior Field Counsel Matthew Fleming, who recommended that Fisher be fired.  The principal of PS 333 suggested she be suspended instead.  When Fisher grieved her suspension to the Chancellor, Farina instead sustained it on the basis of the flimsy (and ultimately false) allegations made by the OSI. 

Yet unbelievably, the DOE has still not agreed to apologize to Fisher, or to remove the disciplinary letter from her file.

For at least a a decade, hundreds of less heralded individuals have complained about their unfair treatment by DOE investigators assigned to the OSI. It shouldn’t take news stories repeated over the course of many months, in the NY Times and the Daily News, as happened in Fisher’s case, or in the NY Post, Daily News and WCBS-TV, as in the Dewey credit recovery scandal, for obvious wrongs to students and teachers to be righted by DOE.  

Worse yet, the Chancellor has kept the same incompetent legal staff running the General Counsel’s office, as well as the same officials running the Division of Contracts, which during the Bloomberg administration allowed literally hundreds of millions of dollars to be wasted or stolen from DOE. 

It was the Executive Director of Contracts, David  Ross, who last February proposed that DOE award an immense contract, worth originally up to $2 billion, to a company that had engaged in massive kickback scheme, defrauding taxpayers of millions of dollars between 2002 through 2008, according to a 2011 report released by Condon.  

During most of this time,  Ross was already head of that office. Luckily, City Hall rejected the new contract, after lots of bad press, but also after the Chancellor and the Panel on Educational Policy had already approved it, in a vote of 9 to 1.  Ross remains head of DOE’s Contracts and Purchasing division after more than ten years, in charge of over $4 billion of contracts each year, according to his LinkedIn profile

In refusing to clean house, the Mayor and the Chancellor have played into the hands of their enemies and allowed the reputation of the entire DOE to be sullied. 

More on the new report, blasting the DOE and the OSI, by Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, and in the New York Post

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