August 23, 2013
Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign is unearthing an old education scandal to take aim at Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the current Democratic frontrunner in the race to replace Mayor Bloomberg.
In a press release, the Quinn campaign compiled news coverage about Frank DeStefano — the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 15 in the late 1990s who ran up a $1.2 million budget deficit — to make the case that de Blasio, then a school board member, allowed the mismanagement to occur. The attack comes as the two are embroiled in bitter fighting over many issues, including the city’s support for local hospitals.
“What Bill de Blasio says and what Bill de Blasio does are two very different things,” Quinn spokesman Mike Morey said in a statement. “While he talks glowingly about his work on his local school board, parents in the district knew de Blasio was only concerned about what was best for Bill de Blasio.”
There’s no disputing that the scandal, which ended in the district superintendent’s resignation, was a difficult time for the school district where de Blasio got his start in city politics. When GothamSchools looked into the episode earlier this summer, de Blasio declined to speak about it, and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment today.
But the story is not as cut and dry as the Quinn campaign suggests.
The press clips that the campaign compiled rest heavily on one parent, Katia Kelly, whose two children attended P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens. The campaign did not speak to Kelly, she and Morey both confirmed. In the clips, Kelly said she had brought concerns about DeStefano to de Blasio, the school board’s liaison to P.S. 58, that he did not respond to.
Kelly, who would later butt heads with de Blasio over the city’s handling of pollution in the Gowanus canal, reprised her concerns earlier this summer in an interview with GothamSchools. She said she was part of a group of 10 parents from P.S. 58 who tried to get de Blasio to look into DeStefano’s mismanagement.
“He has this Clinton-esque way of listening to you that makes you feel like you have his full attention and then he doesn’t do anything about it,” Kelly said about de Blasio. (Kelly is not a United States citizen and cannot vote in the city’s election.)
But other school board members said that while the board’s chief responsibility was hiring and firing the superintendent, it did not have the power to investigate the superintendent’s spending. That power fell to the central Board of Education, then helmed by Bill Thompson, who is also running for mayor this year. Kelly and Pearl Lau, another parent in the group, said they also brought their concerns about DeStefano to Thompson and were also not satisfied with his response.
At one point, four of the nine local school board members sent a letter to then-Chancellor Harold Levy asking him to consider firing DeStefano. Neither Mark Peters, the school board president at the time, or de Blasio signed that letter, according to an October 2000 article in The New York Times. But Peters, who is now de Blasio’s campaign treasurer, told GothamSchools that he and de Blasio had indeed conveyed local concerns to the central board.
“It’s very possible that Mr. de Blasio made inquiries at school board meetings or in executive sessions that we’re not aware of,” Bob Zuckerberg told GothamSchools. Zuckerberg, who had been the district’s teachers union representative, added, “I always remember Bill being very responsive to things that were going on.”
Levy eventually launched an audit into DeStefano’s spending, but the superintendent resigned before it was complete. After a stint as a charter school principal upstate, DeStefano became the second in command of Baltimore’s schools, where he repeatedly ran into trouble.
After DeStefano resigned, de Blasio cited the incomplete audit as a reason that he had not withdrawn support for the embattled administrator.
“I was deeply concerned, but I was not going to make a final decision until I saw the evidence,” he told the Village Voice in 2001. “Both of my parents were victims of the McCarthy era. I do not take lightly the idea of ousting someone. You have to have the evidence.”
In the article, he also defended DeStefano, and said he was a “visionary and a great educator, but he was a horrible communicator.”
Other members of the board said that despite a mounting deficit and rumors that they passed along, they had not known about the scope of the DeStefano’s misspending until close to when he resigned.
“I don’t recall anybody raising with us any of the financial issues of the type that the central board was ultimately upset about,” said Peters, an attorney. “If they had, we would have looked at that.”
Another board member and attorney, Eddie Rodriguez, said, “I really do not recall parents coming to us and making allegations. … If we didn’t know, how would a parent have known?”
After two years on the school board, de Blasio ran for City Council, representing Community District 39, which includes many of the same neighborhoods of school District 15. In 2009, he was elected public advocate, where he quickly made parent engagement a central part of his agenda. In the process, he gained some staunch supporters among parents, a voting bloc that he hopes will help him become the first current public school parent to occupy City Hall in over half a century.
“From a parent perspective, he’s just done everything to engage parents to be transparent to parents and also give parents an avenue to be active,” said Natalie Green Giles, who met de Blasio when he aided her daughters’ Cobble Hill school in 2005. “Obviously he is a public school parent and you feel that in his approach. … When he talks about his ideas for reform you believe him.”
This year, de Blasio won an endorsement from the Educational Justice Political Action Committee, a coalition of parents and community activists.
“From advocating for a tax on our city’s wealthiest to pay for universal early education and after-school programs to calling for a moratorium on co-locations and school closures, Bill has stood by our students, teachers and parents from day one,” said Ocynthia Williams, a longtime parent activist who sits on EJPAC’s board.
Becoming mayor would allow de Blasio to advance those policies from a more powerful perch. It’s exactly what Kelly said she expected so many years ago when she attended District 15 school board meetings with de Blasio, where she said he routinely stepped out to take calls from Hillary Clinton, whose Senate campaign he was managing.
“We started getting a little bit peeved. We realized he was using this to further his own career because shortly afterward he declared his candidacy to become our City Council representative,” Kelly said.
Lau, another parent who dealt with de Blasio on District 15’s school board, said she had shared Kelly’s concerns.
“We were all under the impression that Bill was using our school board as a steppingstone,” Lau said. “That was a very uncomfortable feeling, [that] he was just trying to get his feet wet and build up his base for his next gig … and we were right.”
But she said she thought he fulfilled his charge as the liaison between the board and individual schools well enough anyway.
“Bill was very responsive,” Lau said. “I think he listened. I don’t know how much you can do when you’re a person on the school board.”