David Pakter, a NYC Teacher and Whistleblower of the NYC Board of Education's Corrupt Practices, Sues in Federal Court
From Betsy Combier:
This story was posted in 2008
Four years and four New York City Board of Education re-assignment centers ("rubber rooms") later, David Pakter (pictured at right with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 1997) completes his journey to hold the New York City Board of Education accountable for taking him away from his very successful career in the New York City public school system as an excellent teacher, and dumping him into the dungeons of the NYC rubber rooms. For what? For trying to expose racial discrimination at one school, and buying plants for the lobby at another. I've been lucky to see it all, and it's quite a story! There's something to please everyone - retaliation and vindictiveness by the NYC BOE against a teacher who did the right thing, a medical evaluation that was false and overturned, and the ridiculous "rubberization" process that good teachers in NYC have to be subjected to when he or she puts the students first. David refuses to be silenced, and we salute him for this as he proceeds in his quest for justice. by Betsy Combier
David Pakter is a teacher who will teach again. His lesson will be perhaps not for the children he taught at the High School of Art and Design (picture below) in New York City, but for adult learners who need to know how to stop the abuse by the New York City Department of Education of teachers who whistleblow what is happening in the City Schools.
I dont think there are many people who know David Pakter's story who would say that he was placed in four re-assignment centers ("rubber rooms") in New York City by the New York City Board of Education for good reason - or any reason. His first round of rubber room sitting occurred after he refused, in September 2004, to stand by and allow the Principal of Art and Design to remove music from the multi-ethnic students at this high school, while an elementary class from PS 59 moved into the high school music rooms.(The school has since moved to East 63rd Street - Editor). Pakter asserts that he was viciously retaliated against and harassed because he reported evidence of criminal wrongdoing, including ongoing violations of Federal Civil Rights statutes (as well as unnecessary window construction work and repairs at his school), to the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District.
Specifically, David contacted both the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation and wrote the Chancellor directly because he believed the school Principal Madeleine Appell had determined that the only foreign language that the students at At & Design were to be exposed to was Spanish -- the language which most of the school's students spoke before they learned English, and was retaliating against him because he offered 10 minutes enrichment in his elite medical illustration class, for a short lesson in french. David had ordered enrichment materials and books on countless occasions, during his 37-year-career, (and been praised for doing so), and had ordered a set of books for his gifted Medical Illustration students titled "French in 10 Minutes a Day". On Friday afternoon, Sept. 26, 2003, an Assistant Principal named Harold Mason (pictured at left, and who, by the way, was videotaped saying Pakter was engaging in “mental masturbation” at a disciplinary hearing. Mason was severely criticized by an independent hearing
officer who called it “an outrageous comment.”- Editor) entered Pakter's locked Medical room, at close to 5 PM to present Pakter with a letter formally charging Pakter with ordering and distributing books to his students. The letter cited an enclosed Chancellor's Regulation A-610, entitled "Fund Raising Activities and Collection of Money from Students", said regulation having no relationship to the ordering of books.
David says he was ludicrously charged with ordering the set of French books because the school was determined not to allow the teaching of any language other than Spanish in the school, even to students for whom Spanish was their birth language and that both the Principal as well as the Assistant Principal were fully aware and informed that he had violated no rule or regulation in ordering books for his students.
David videotaped the PS 59 children because he wanted to do the right thing, and expose what he believed to be racial discrimination at the High School of Art and Design. David is a NYC public school teacher, after all, and a mandated reporter of the NYC public school system. The kids from PS 59 were mostly white. In fact, David says, Madeleine Appell, the Principal of A & D High School, had accepted, under a Special Budget line (Blue Print for the Arts), almost $ 75,000 to guarantee Music to the High School students but had in fact, gotten rid of Music at the school. Ms. Appell was a contributor to the writing of "Blueprints For the Visual Arts" - see page. 2, which many people wondered about. Did she give heself a grant? David wanted to know where that money went. He asked the music teacher if he could video the kids from PS 59 for his own use, and she said yes. Approximately one hour after the videotaping, David says that Principal Madeleine Appell entered his classroom and interrupted him while he was teaching, to demand the videotape he had made of the music class -- a demand David refused. He was ordered to attend a meeting after school later that day at which time Principal Appell again repeatedly demanded the music videotape and which demand was again refused by David.
The following day, Sept. 23, 2004, Principal Madeleine Appell called a special faculty conference after normal school hours to announce that she had decided to retire forthwith as Principal of the school. We hear that she was hired by CUNY - Kingsborough Community College.
David adds: "The New York Dept of Education made an offer on or about Sept. 27. 2004 to the effect that if I would surrender a video tape in my possession that documented a serious, unacceptable and illegal form of discrimination taking place at the High School of Art and Design, I would be returned to my former position as Instructor of Medical Illustration."
He again refused, and was quickly removed from the school and assigned to a rubber room. Later, new Principal John Lachky only allowed him one single day, a Saturday, to pack and remove twenty five years of books, personal records and personally owned Medical items from the school premises. In the weeks previous to the single afternoon he was allowed to return to the building, his metal storage cabinets had been entered and rifled through by his immediate supervisor at the school, Mary Ann Geist-Deninno. A police report documents that thousands of dollars of Pakter's property was stolen, removed or destroyed.
David reports that a full half-year after he was removed from the school, he received telephone calls from two different teachers from the school that his former Supervisor, Mary Ann Geist-Deninno entered his former Medical Illustration room accompanied by a computer expert named Amir Faroun and claimed later the same day that she had found "pornographic material" on one of the open access computers that students used on a daily basis. When Ms. Geist-Deninno reported this "discovery" to the Office of Special Investigations, investigators arrived at the school and were stunned to learn the computer Ms. Geist-Deninno wished them to examine was a computer that everyone in the school had access to day and night. Including Ms. Geist-Deninno. The investigators recommended she store the computer in a closet. Four weeks after mailing his letter to the Medical Office, Mr. Lachky, like the previous Principal, chose to retire.
Despite the information stated immediately above, a full five months after Ms. Geist-Deninno reported her "discovery", the former Principal John Lachky wrote and personally signed a letter memorializing Geist-Deninno's "discovery" to the Director of the Medical Office of the New York Department of Education, Dr. Audrey Jacobson, M.D. Mr. Lachky, in reporting Geist-Deninno's "discovery" made 5 months earlier, suggested that Pakter be interviewed by the Medical Office.
David was the teacher for the only medical illustration course in New York City, at the High School for Art and Design. He was cited by Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the 'Teacher of the Year' in 1997. To understand David's case, click here to read a letter he wrote to Chancellor Klein on October 2, 2003 about the racial discrimination in New York public schools, and former NYCBOE Counsel Chad Vignola's response. Chad Vignola was fired by Joel Klein when he allowed Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam to hire her husband for a position in the NYC BOE without getting a clearance from the Conflict of Interest Board. Or so the story goes...(there is always more that the public never hears about).
"Sadly, rather than respond to my letter, Chancellor Klein delegated that responsibility to his former General Counsel, Chad Vignola, Esq. who only months after I wrote the Chancellor, was forced to resign in disgrace for his part in the Diana Lam cover up scandal in which Deputy Chancellor Lam attempted to illegally place her husband in a high paying DOE job in a manner contrary to State and
Any person reading Chad Vignola's letter to me on behalf of Mr. Klein cannot fail to observe that Mr. Vignola fails to address a single issue that was raised in my letter to the Chancellor."
David was ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination by the New York City Department of Education: "The Medical Office has set up an appointment for me to meet with a Psychologist by the name of Dr. Richard Schuster, Ph.D., Panel Psychologist, at "Comprehensive Rehabilitation Consultants", at 275 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, on Friday, August 19, 2005." Although he was informed he would be interviewed by Schuster for about five hours, David in fact was asked to spend two full consecutive days at Schuster's office taking over fifty pages of examinations.
On the second day, July 27, 2005, Schuster administered a version of the 567 question MMPI-2 Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which had just been declared an illegal employee Medical Examination in a Unanimous Seventh Circuit panel decision, six weeks earlier. (See: Unanimous Seventh Circuit panel, Karraker v. Rent-A-Center, Inc., 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 11142 ,June 14, 2005). Then on August 16, 2005, he received a letter from the Medical Office, signed by the Medical Director, Dr. Audrey Jacobson, M.D., stating that based on the examinations Schuster had administered, David was "not currently fit for duty".
David says that Dr. Jacobson signed that letter, which effectively ended his employment with the New York City Dept. of Education, despite the fact that he was later informed that Dr. Jacobson had never bothered to read the complete official version of the results of the MMPI Examination administered on her orders, which stated on several different pages, in particular page 3:
"His MMPI-2 clinical and content scales are within normal limits. No clinical symptoms were reported".
Immediately on being notified of the claim of the Medical Office Director Dr. Audrey Jacobson that Pakter was not "fit for duty", David attempted to avail himself of the remedy specified in Dr. Jacobson's letter: that he "may request an independent evaluation by a medical arbitrator." His NYSUT attorney sent a certified letter to Dr. Jacobson memorializing Pakter's demand for medical arbitration and the United Federation of Teachers simultaneously filed in a timely manner. To obtain another opinion on his fitness to teach, David and his NYSUT attorney sought and obtained the services of the handsome and eminent Forensic Psychiatrist, Dr. Alberto M. Goldwaser, M.D., D.F.A.P.A. After a lengthy and expert evaluation, and also careful study of hundreds of pages of documents including the documents and reports utilized by Dr. Jacobson in making her own evaluation, Dr. Alberto Goldwaser (pictured at right) concluded that there was no scientific evidence whatsoever to substantiate the claim of the Medical Office that Pakter was not "fit for duty".
But David also wanted another opinion from the Medical Office, and asked the UFT for help in getting another evaluation. He finally received notice from the Medical Office that they had arranged an appointment with their "independent medical arbitrator," Dr. Charles E. Schwartz, M.D., to take place at Montefiore Hospital on Dec. 21, 2005 at 5:15 PM. Due to a transportation strike, the appointment was delayed until Jan. 11, 2006, with the physician named above. David was accompanied at the medical arbitration by Dr. Alberto Goldwaser, as well as a reporter and journalist (Betsy Combier). Near the end of the two-and-a-half-hour medical arbitration meeting, Dr. Schwartz agreed and concurred with Dr. Goldwaser that there was no scientific evidence to support the claim of Dr. Audrey Jacobson, Director of the Medical Office, that Pakter was not "fit for duty".
Six months later, David sent me this email:
"The Director of The New York City Dept of Education Medical Office, Dr. Audrey Jacobson, has admitted in a signed letter sent to David Pakter, that her office made a mistake in claiming Mr. Pakter was not "fit for duty" on August 16, 2005.
In a tersely worded letter dated June 5, 2006, DOE Medical Office director, Dr. Jacobson stated:
"The independent medical arbitrator has upheld your appeal, and has declared that the Medical, Leaves & Benefits Office was incorrect in deeming you unfit for duty as of August 16, 2005. The findings of the medical arbitrator are equally binding on you and the Department of Education. A copy of the arbitrator's decision has been sent to your physician."
This is believed to be the first instance in more than a quarter of a century that a New York City teacher, having been found "unfit" by the Department of Education Medical Office, was able to have such a charge overturned."
I filed a freedom of information request to obtain information on charges against David:
From: Betsy [email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, September 05, 2006 12:25 AM
To: Holtzman Susan
Cc: Arons Elizabeth Dr.; Best Michael (Legal Services); Cantor David; Caputo Virginia; MCardozo@law.nyc.gov; Longoria Carragher Arlene; TCrane@law.nyc.gov; firstname.lastname@example.org; Solarmedia@aol.com; Feinberg Marge; RFreeman@dos.state.ny.us; JFriedla@law.nyc.gov; AbGolden@law.nyc.gov; Greenfield Robin; Kicinski Christine J; Klein Joel I.; LKoerner@law.nyc.gov; Onek Matthew; NorScot@aol.com
Subject: Press FOIL Request from The E-Accountability Foundation
The E-Accountability Foundation
Betsy Combier, President and Campaign Sponsor
email@example.com September 5, 2006
Ms. Susan W. Holtzman
Central Records Access Officer
Office of Legal Services
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Dear Ms. Holtzman:
Under the provisions of the New York Freedom of Information Law, Article 6 of the Public Officers Law, I hereby request to purchase records or portions thereof pertaining to:
1) all Technical Assistance Conference memoranda ("TAC memos") that were authored by personnel assigned to the Office of Legal Services, and which mention David Pakter
2) all Technical Assistance Conference memoranda ("TAC memos") that were authored by personnel assigned to the Office of Appeals and Reviews, and which mention David Pakter.
If any record has been redacted or denied, please identify which categories of information have been redacted or denied, and cite the relevant statutory exemption.
I would prefer to receive the requested records by E-mail.
If you have any questions relating to the specific records or portion(s) being sought, please phone me so that we may discuss them.
You may not deny access to inter-agency or intra-agency records that are not "final agency policy or determinations" if they contain "statistical or factual tabulations or data" (or other material subject to production) within them, unless statutory exemptions different from FOIL §87(2)(g) are applicable. Both you and Mr. Best were previously in error for denying access to records on the sole ground that they were not "final agency policy or determinations."
RELEVANT JUDICIAL DECISIONS
Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster (65 NY2d 131)
New York 1 News v. Office of the Borough President of Staten Island (647 NYS2d 270, affirmed 231 AD2d 524)
Gould v. New York City Police Department (89 NY2d 267)
RELEVANT ADVISORY OPINION
As you know, the Freedom of Information Law requires that an agency respond to a request within five business days of receipt of a request. Therefore, I would appreciate a response as soon as possible and look forward to hearing from you shortly. If for any reason any portion of my request is denied, please inform me of the reasons for the denial in writing and provide the name and address of the person or body to whom an appeal should be directed.
David's first 3020a hearing began Nov. 30, 2005, and lasted many months. Then he waited for the decision another several months. Hearing Officer Martin Scheinman heard witnesses at David's 3020a that David was an excellent teacher...he fined David $15,000 for "insubordination".
In September 2006 David was assigned to the High School of Fashion Industries. He wrote "The AP of Supervision, Giovanni Raschilla, admitted to a reporter that even before I was reassigned to that school, following my first 3020-a trial, the school Principal, Hilda Nieto, had received specific marching orders from the NYC DOE to target me as soon as I arrived at the school and 'get something on Pakter'. An outrageous state of affairs in which I had literally been ordered into a hostile work place environment where I was already targeted as "guilty" before I even walked in the schoolhouse door. And I fully suspected this would be the case but had I not reported to the new assignment the DOE would have charged me with being AWOL. Thus it was a catch-22, no win situation for me."
He was there only a few weeks when removed once again to the rubber room, this time at West 125th Street.
Here is the re-assignment letter:
November 22, 2006
Dear Mr. Pakter:
Please be advised that an allegation has been made against you and pending the outcome of this investigation you are being reassigned to 388 125th Street, 6th floor. Effective Monday,November 27, 2006, you are to report to 388 125th Street,
6th floor and continue to report to the location until further notice.
Human Resources Director (Manhattan)
C: Michael LaForgia
Local Instructional Superintendent
David's explanation: "For the record it should be noted that the two specific issues that arose with the principal in the short time I had been assigned to HS Fashion Industries are as follows:
1) The school attempted to place a letter in my file that I had purchased two plants for the lobby of the school without Principal Nieto's written permission. This is obvious harassment as I have been decorating school lobbies for over 30 years and never needed permission.
2) As an incentive to improve student achievement I offered to allow students with a 90 % average or higher on their report card to select a fashion accessory watch from my corporate website www.DAVIDPAKTERWATCHES.COM that showcases watches from my sold out 2004-2005 fashion collection which are no longer available for sale so there is no conflict of interest issues. The students were all well aware that the only way to obtain a watch from my last collection was to earn it by attaining a 90 or higher average on the official school report card. (See his collection at store.davidpakterwatches - Editor)
For the first time in my long career as a teacher, the principal claimed I needed approval from the DOE/ Regional Office to distribute incentive awards. I thereupon emailed a formal request to Mariano Guzman, the Deputy Superintendent for Region Nine, fully describing in detail the full particulars of my company's offer to underwrite an incentive campaign.
It should be noted that the HS of Fashion Industries has for many years maintained their own student incentive program consisting of rewarding students with financial "vouchers" to acquire free art supplies from the official school store.
In addition, on page 6 of the most recent Parents Association Newsletter, the entire page is plastered with the names of stores, companies and neighborhood movie theatres that support the HS of Fashion Industries.
Thus once again the entire issue of my awarding students fashion accessories for high achievement is really a non-issue. But the attempted letter in my file re the above (which the UFT Rep challenged) is simply one more example of the never ending vendetta on the part of the DOE to try to harass me out of the system. Especially since I won the Medical Arbitration Decision last June which forced the Director of the DOE Medical Office, Dr. Audrey Jacobson to formally recant in writing a knowingly false claim she made one year ago, much to her embarrassment, and at great cost to the City."
Specification 6 of David's new charges as he awaits his second 3020a hearing was that he made the New York City Board of Education 'look bad' in the NY Teacher article written about his case and published on March 15, 2007. Spec #6 says: "caused widespread negative publicity and notoriety to the HS of Fashion Industries and the New York City Department of Education in general when his "unprofessional behavior" was referenced in a UFT newspaper".
"Thus I was not only set up and victimized but later charged in the 3020-a Specifications for my new, second, 3020-a Trial with the crime of letting the UFT publish the facts of my first 3020-a Railroading," David said. The NYC BOE re-considered, and withdrew this charge. David awaits his second 3020a hearing.
|David took this picture of me and his NYSUT Attorney Chris Callagy|
In September 2008 Pakter sued the NYC Board of Education in Federal Court:
U.S. District Court
United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Foley Square), CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 1:08-cv-07673-DAB
David Pakter's Complaint
New York City's Notice to Dismiss
New York City's Memorandum of Law in Support of the Motion to Dismiss
NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, Esq.'s Dirty Secret For Purging Teachers
How Long 'Til Mayoral Control of our Public Schools Falls Out of Favor
December 5, 2001
School's Alumni and Staff Feel Its Art Emphasis Is Neglected
By MIRA TWETI, NY TIMES
For decades after it was founded, the High School of Art and Design on East 57th Street in Manhattan funneled generations of students into commercial art careers.
It did so by immersing its students in four or more art classes a day, in a choice of 13 majors from architecture to fashion design. Graduates include the designer Calvin Klein, the singer Tony Bennett, the playwright Harvey Fierstein and the filmmaker Ralph Bakshi.
But as the school celebrates its 65th anniversary this month, alumni, teachers and students are worried that a focus on bread-and-butter academic subjects like science and history is watering down the school's commercial art mission, even as money has not been made available to keep the number of art offerings at their traditional level.
Critics say that the 1,500 students at A.& D., as the school is known, are now more likely to have two periods of art a day than four. Years ago, state and city budget cuts began stripping away financing for art classes, and even in recent years when the budget has been robust, the money has been diverted to support increased instruction in subjects like science and history needed to pass the state Regents tests required of both vocational and academic students.
''The Board of Education has a one-size-fits-all policy,'' said an assistant principal, John Lachky. ''We have to conform to the same requirements as any other school even though we have special needs.''
State officials, including Roseanne DeFabio, an assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction and assessment, say that higher academic standards, properly applied, should improve the school. ''There was pretty universal agreement that those academic requirements should be the same for everybody,'' she said.
W. L. Sawyer, the Board of Education's superintendent for Manhattan high schools, speculated that the decline in art classes was a result of an increased need for remedial classes. But staff members at the school say that only about 60 of 360 incoming ninth graders needed math remediation, the most prevalent remedial subject, and that such classes were usually given after school.
The school still offers career preparation in 13 art majors: animation, advertising, illustration, fashion design, fine arts, architecture, photography, theater arts, medical illustration, cartooning, computer graphics, industrial arts and film and video production. So well regarded are the school's commercial art graduates that companies like Disney visit the school to recruit.
''The concentration of art training that I got,'' said Calvin Klein, a 1959 alumnus, ''gave me a very strong foundation. I spent a good four hours a day. I couldn't have gotten that from half the amount of time.''
Since its inception, the school has trained a diverse group of students, mostly from working-class and lower-middle-class homes. Today, roughly a third of the students are black, a third are Hispanic and the rest are white or Asian.
Throughout the years, there have been letter-writing campaigns and walkouts to protest systematic arts cuts. Hope Eisman, the school's principal, says that ever-increasing academic requirements have not only pushed out art classes but have also given the students a heavier burden than other high school students have.
Ms. Eisman emphasized that she was an advocate of strong academic subjects. But she added: ''You've got kids here who don't want to go to Harvard. My kids want to go to Pratt, Cooper Union, F.I.T. and Rhode Island School of Design. We're asking a kid who doesn't need it to take physics.''
Karines Reyes, a senior who edited the yearbook and wants to work in advertising, said, ''I like math, I like physics, but they are completely useless to me in terms of my career goals.''
The school, which has historically been classified as a vocational school, is included in the schools affected by a new state policy that will allow courses in math, science and English to be blended with art by including, say, more calculation and writing in an art class. But Mr. Lachky said it was hard to find art teachers also qualified to teach science and math courses on a Regents level.
The extra academic requirements have also strained the school's budget, Mr. Lachky said. ''Now you have to add a lab to every science class,'' he said. ''Where do you get that one period to give the lab and where do you put the lab?''
With budget cuts, teachers complain, comes an increasing lack of technology. ''We've been operating in the Dark Ages,'' said an assistant principal, MaryAnn Geist-Deninno. ''Animation was done with flip books until recently, and you end up with a whole class using one digital camera that I bought at Radio Shack.''
At the Fiorello H. La Guardia School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, on the Upper West Side, the Web site displays a comprehensive art curriculum that includes three periods of studio art a day. But there is a reason for the disparity, Mr. Sawyer says.
La Guardia, he said, is a specialized school, backed by state legislation enabling a distinct difference in budget allotment. La Guardia also looks at both academics and artistic ability in its entrance requirements. Art and Design weighs only a student's artistic ability, thereby admitting students who need remediation.
The original School of Industrial Arts was started in a dilapidated warehouse on West 40th Street in 1936 by four young art teachers. They made their own desks and storage from orange crates and plywood. After two decades at a former Civil War hospital, the school was renamed Art and Design and moved in 1961 to a new, modernistic building at 1075 Second Avenue.
The terror attack of Sept. 11 has also hurt the school. In past years, 500 applicants have turned up on each of four days to take a two-and-a-half-hour art test and submit their portfolios. Now teachers say the number of applicants showing up has been cut in half, and they cite parents' fears of having their children far from home.
As a result of the slippage in courses and equipment, alumni like Mr. Bakshi feel the school has changed for the worse.
''It's madness what they did,'' he said. ''Why did they take a perfectly good art school that put hundreds, thousands in the business and change its format?''
Related story: Diana Lam's ouster:
On the Lam
New York Magazine
The mayor wanted basic change in the schools, and Diana Lam provided it—until unsavory tactics proved her undoing. Where does the chancellor turn now?By Robert Kolker, Published Mar 15, 2004
Joel Klein is not the man he was two years ago when Mike Bloomberg asked him to head the nation’s largest public-school system, and much of his evolution—especially his belief that children learn as much reading alone as they do from being taught by teachers—took place at the knee of Diana Lam. In a cabinet of private-sector and think-tank émigrés, Lam, Klein’s deputy for instruction, was the only career educator; while most of his team focused on rejiggering the bureaucracy, Lam introduced the one piece of reform that actually had to do with the way kids are taught. But now that she has left in disgrace—forced out for nepotism, igniting the mayor’s first major personnel scandal—Klein finds himself in an awkward position: He feels the need to defend her as an educator while condemning her sin. And yet, even as the scandal grows, Klein’s condemnation seems halfhearted.
“Some people for ideological reasons disagreed with her about the curriculum,” Klein says. “That became an issue. And in this business, people get polarized. That’s unfortunate. But I think that she was a sound educator, and I have confidence in her educational judgments.”
Klein defended Lam to Bloomberg, too, before the mayor finally persuaded him to get her resignation, which suggests either a certain political myopia or a devotedness to the deputy who became his mentor. In the beginning, Klein had hired her to be a change agent, offering her the job after just a few meetings not because of her educational philosophy but because they clicked. “I liked her style,” he told me last year. Did he know anything about the educational programs she used? “No,” he admitted. But he did know this: Four times, in four different cities, Lam would start up a campaign of parental engagement, introduce a new curriculum, and see test scores bump up a tick or two. And for an education novice whose boss needed the scores to go up before the next election, that seemed like a good deal.
In Lam, Klein had found a fellow anti-incrementalist; in a pedagogical culture of marathoners, she was a sprinter. Revamp the middle schools? No problem. Cut out social promotion in the third grade? Done. Devise a special-ed plan and break up the big high schools? You got it. She was dynamic and uncompromising at a time when managing the educational bureaucracy was at the forefront of the mayor’s thinking about education.
She was also impolitic, a lousy listener. She didn’t mind whom she provoked. The $800,000 buyout in San Antonio. The wacky three-day campaign for mayor in Boston. The bad blood in Dubuque. And the last few months in Providence, where she rigged a bidding war with Portland, Oregon, to boost her salary and then abruptly accepted the job in New York, giving notice by e-mail. In the end, Lam didn’t need any help imploding.
Last summer, newspapers were tipped off that her husband, Peter Plattes, was working in a department that reports directly to her. Lam claimed that Plattes never formally accepted the job, but another tipster revealed this to be a lie. Guessing who whispered to investigators about Lam’s indiscretions has become a parlor game at Tweed Courthouse. “She was done in by people inside the system who work for her,” says one source who sat on a board with Lam. “Not by reporters or teachers.”
In the final act last week, when a report by the schools investigator forced Bloomberg’s hand, Lam made sure she wouldn’t flame out alone: She said she’d been given the blessing of general counsel Chad Vignola, who resigned a few days later. For a mayor who has staked his reelection on cleaning up the schools, this is no time for an accountability crisis. But Klein, claiming all is well, continues to cast himself as a reformer—and Lam as a target of those who opposed reform.
“She didn’t mind whom she provoked. In the end, Lam didn’t need any help imploding.”
Lam’s enemies were ideological and political as well as personal. Phonics fans like Diane Ravitch were appalled by her philosophy of allowing long blocks of unstructured time for children to simply read and write on their own. Liberals hated the pressure the program put on teachers. The joke around Tweed was that for the first time, teachers-union chief Randi Weingarten and Manhattan Institute pundit Sol Stern agreed on something—that Diana Lam was a disaster.
“Wherever she went, the teachers hated her,” says Stern. “Her forte is a tremendous emphasis on top-down staff development. You haul all of the teachers and principals out of the classrooms constantly and pound into them what it is you want done.” Those headlines about how teachers are shocked that they have to keep lessons to less than eleven minutes—Lam took the blame for that. Which is why Weingarten felt comfortable sending Lam off last week with the hope that “we can start making educational decisions based on what works for children rather than on one administrator’s personal ideology.”
In recasting the system in Lam’s image, Klein embraced a curriculum already used in wealthier parts of town like the Upper West and Upper East sides—alarming conservatives who believe poor kids need something more structured, like phonics. Klein and Lam capitulated, making a phonics program available to qualify for federal money, but it’s clear Klein still believes in Lam’s approach. “People want to put adjectives on it instead of understanding the texture and nuance,” Klein says, “which is a much more complicated set of issues about how you not only teach children how to read words but to have an excitement for reading—to share ideas. So I think this is the right solution, and I think people are giving this a bad rap.”
in the last several months, lam had become so disliked that Klein was shielding her from public exposure. “Clearly, she was the lead educational thinker,” says Eva Moskowitz, chair of the City Council’s education committee. “But there was a vacuum when it came to who would be allowed to publicly defend the rationale. I don’t think either Klein or Lam really took seriously the level of dissatisfaction in the system.”
Now that she’s gone, there’s not much of a chance for Klein to exhale. “I think we have the right mix of talent,” he says. “Let’s wait and see if we bring in somebody else to fill that role on a permanent basis.”
“Well, it’ll depend, obviously, on whether we find the right person,” he says.
Much of what people found provocative about Diana Lam—the new curricula, the speed of the reforms—remains in place. But from here on out, Klein will be taking the heat alone. He’s graduated.