THE BRONX — State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz tried to block minority students from enrolling in a popular public elementary school — saying that he didn't want “outsiders” coming into the kindergarten in the tony area of Riverdale, according to a lawsuit filed by the school’s assistant principal on Monday.
The state legislator installed his chief of staff Randi Martos in P.S. 24, located on West 236th Street, as "part of a politically and racially motivated scheme to prevent minorities and lower-income children from attending P.S. 24 and other schools in the area," school administrator Manuele Verdi claims in the suit.
Martos was present during the enrollment process at P.S. 24 on at least six occasions in March and April of this year — demanding more than the required proof of residency and violating the federal privacy rights of at least 100 students by having unauthorized access to their personal files, the assistant principal claimed.
Verdi also claimed that Dinowitz issued thinly veiled racial threats, saying he could tell if children were not from Riverdale just by looking at them and “by the way they walk, talk, and wear their pants.”
Martos improperly intervened in the registration process, looking over students’ medical and academic records and checking proofs of address, insisting parents produce three pieces of identification — which exceeds the two required under city regulations and runs afoul of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law to ensure immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless students, the lawsuit stated.
In addition, it violates students' protection under HIPAA and Family Education Rights and Privacy Act laws for non-school personnel to have access to their records.
Dinowitz told DNAinfo New York on Monday that Martos did play a role in student registration but stressed that she was invited to do so by the school. He also insisted that it was helpful for the school.
"Her role there was brief and was more as a helper, because they need all the help they can get, apparently," Dinowitz said.
"The fact that Manny Verdi may not have had as active a role as he’s had in the past in signing off on everybody, whether they should have been enrolled or not, probably annoyed him," Dinowitz continued.
Dinowitz emphatically denied that issues of race and class had anything to do with his office's involvement in P.S. 24, characterizing such accusations as wildly inappropriate.
"All I can say is that’s really a lot of nonsense," Dinowitz said. "And with all the racism that goes on in this world, it’s disgusting when somebody would raise false charges of racism to feather his own nest, so to speak."
The unusual move to include Martos in the school’s enrollment process occurred after an annex that had housed P.S. 24’s fifth graders closed, leading to complaints of overcrowding at the school.
Verdi said Dinowitz denied that there was an overcrowding problem, adding that there were too many "outsiders" coming to enroll in the school.
Verdi argued that his school, and former principal Donna Connelly, were targeted by Dinowitz and other politicians as the school became stronger, more diverse and more progressive in its teaching and learning.
“We were never much liked by some of the local politicians and accusations and innuendo commenced soon after we started our tenure at PS 24,” Verdi wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.
“It was clear to us, from the beginning that while we and most of the staff have only the children’s best interest at heart and mind, local political machines had other agendas,” added Verdi, who believes he should be granted whistleblower status for shedding light on this enrollment practice.
Verdi added in his letter to Fariña that "once it became public knowledge that Dr. Connelly’s boyfriend is African American, as well as one of my children, Mr. Dinowitz stopped visiting the school."
P.S. 24, known as the Spuyten Duyvil school, is considered a gem in the area, with a strong arts program and active parent body. It won a New York State academic excellence in education award this year.
In terms of the sheer number of applicants to this neighborhood school, it ranked No. 89 most popular of more than 880 programs, according to a DNAinfo analysis of 2014 Department of Education kindergarten enrollment data.
It’s also known for having a diverse student body, with 42 percent white students, 41 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 7 percent black. Nearly 30 percent of its students are on free or reduced lunch.
Verdi said he and Connelly were scapegoated by Dinowitz after the school lost the lease to the annex. Connelly, who left in October, “chose to retire to avoid future confrontations with local officials and school administration,” the lawsuit read.
However, Dinowitz maintained that Verdi and Connelly were genuinely at fault for the loss of the lease, as he and other elected officials had told them months before to push the DOE on getting it renewed after hearing that negotiations were going poorly.
"They chose not to do that," Dinowitz said. "They buried their heads in the sand, basically."
Verdi then exacerbated the overcrowding situation by allowing students from anywhere to attend the school despite the lack of space, according to Dinowitz.
"If there was space, kids should be in the school. If that would help relieve overcrowding in another school, fine," he said. "But that wasn’t the situation. They allowed people to come into the school who lived far away."
Following Connelly’s departure, Superintendent Melodie Mashel told Verdi that he “cannot stay at 24” because politicians were “intimidated” by him and that leaving “might be a good thing,” court papers read.
“I have been informed by several people of several meetings convened by Superintendent Mashel where my position as AP was discussed and my removal would be a condition for anyone wishing to be principal at PS 24,” Verdi wrote in the letter to Fariña.
Verdi said he is scheduled to meet with Mashel on May 4, at which point he said he expects to be fired or disciplined. The Department of Education referred questions to the New York City Law Department, which confirmed it will "review the complaint."