UPPER EAST SIDE — A city teacher fired from an Upper East Side school for allegedly bribing students with pizza and having a second-grader fetch her lunch claims she was really let go because she blew the whistle on a culture of accepting lavish gifts from parents.
Valencia Garrett, 40, lost her job at the highly regarded P.S. 183 after a state hearing officer upheld a slew of misconduct charges in February, including promising pizza and Chinese food to her students if they made her look good during a class observation. Another allegation was that she had her second-grade student bring her lunch from the cafeteria at least five times.
Garrett filed a petition in Manhattan Supreme Court on March 8, asking a judge to overturn the officer's decision. She claims the 14 disciplinary charges were bogus and brought by school officials retaliating against her for griping about parents giving teachers hefty cash gifts.
A teacher at P.S. 183 since 1997, Garrett first ruffled feathers in 2009, when she returned to the school after a two-year maternity leave and P.S. 183 had a new principal, according to court papers.
Garrett said that at a Christmas party a parent handed her five $100 bills, but she returned the gift because it didn't seem right. Department of Education rules prohibit teachers from accepting gifts with a value of $50 or more from anyone doing business with the city or schools. Teachers are also prohibited from taking cash gifts from parents or students.
In a January 2010 meeting with then-principal Mary Anne Sacco and assistant principal Tara Napoleoni, Garrett was told that by declining the gift, she "was making the school look bad," according to her account in court papers.
Sacco allegedly added that Garrett "was going against the school's culture" and creating tension with parents.
"If you really, really feel uncomfortable, Valencia, with taking a gift, then maybe this isn't the best school for you," Sacco said, according to Garrett's account in the documents.
Garrett continued to decline gifts over the next year, including a $40 present the following Christmas and a $675 gift certificate in June 2011, according to the documents.
She claims that officials retaliated by giving her unsatisfactory teacher ratings in 2010 and 2011, even though she never received a bad evaluation in the past.
In May 2012, Garrett was also hit with the disciplinary charges, court papers show. The allegations ranged from failing to obtain permission slips for a field trip and skipping meetings to slamming shut her classroom door to prevent the principal from observing her.
Napoleoni, who succeeded Sacco as principal, made the food-bribing allegation after she spoke to Garrett's students following a classroom observation on Feb. 15, 2011. Students said they had rehearsed their lesson and were promised pizza and Chinese food if they were good, according to the principal's report.
Garrett claims the food was just to make up for not having a holiday party.
A parent of a student also complained last April that her son brought hot meals to Garrett five or six time as a "reward." Garrett claims she was letting the boy have lunch with her because his classmates were picking on him.
In a Feb. 24 decision, hearing officer Stephen O'Beirne upheld 11 of the 14 charges.
O'Beirne's decision notes that Garrett filed a complaint with the DOE's Office of Special Investigation, which subsequently opened a probe. A DOE spokeswoman told DNAinfo.com New York that the investigations didn't substantiate Garrett's allegations.
O'Beirne didn't buy Garrett's claims, either.
"In my opinion, [Garrett's] whistle-blower/muckraker defense does not withstand scrutiny," he wrote in his opinion.
O'Beirne added that he found it hard to believe that school officials conspired against Garrett.
"That is a leap of faith I am not prepared to make on the record before me," he said.
Garrett began working for the DOE in 1993. Her salary was $85,426 a year, according to the department. Reached by phone, she declined to comment on her appeal.
The DOE did not comment about her firing. The city Law Department said it had received Garrett's petition, but declined to comment further.
P.S. 183 sits in one of Manhattan's wealthiest neighborhoods. According to InsideSchools.org, a third of parents work as medical professionals at the neighborhood's hospitals.