New Rochelle Board of Education Promoting Illegal Fundraising and Political Activity in Public Schools

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — The past five years has seen a dramatic increase in illegal fundraising during school hours and Illegal political activity by New Rochelle school district employees. The school board is not only aware of it but has actively promoted both.

This is no gray area.

On the illegal fundraising issue, New York State Regents Rule 19.6 states:

Direct solicitation of charitable donations from children in the public schools on school property during regular school hours shall not be permitted.

Despite this, in their official Twitter feed yesterday, the District promoted a fundraiser “inspired” by a school psychologist. In the tweet, students are depicted handing over cash to other students seated at a table in what appears to be a hallway or room at New Rochelle High School.

This is hardly the first time.

On the illegal political activity, New Rochelle Board of Education Policy 1310 states:

The Board of Education recognizes the rights of its employees as citizens to engage in political activities, but they are restricted from so doing during work time when they are to devote their full attention to their work. Employees may not use their employment by the Board of Education as an endorsement of their individual political views.

Despite this, high school teachers organized a protest rally in violation of 1310 them marched the students off campus in violation of 5520, the school’s closed campus policy.

New Rochelle Board of Education policy addresses forms of permissible Fund Raising by Community Groups under Policy 1330 which states:

A community group, recognized by the Board of Education as a school‑related organization, planning to conduct a fund‑raising activity, the proceeds of which will be used for the benefit of District students, school programs, or school facilities must adhere to the District’s fund‑raising policies and regulations. Also, the group must adhere to other relevant District policies and administrative regulations such as the requirements for use of District facilities and solicitation of funds from students.

No fund‑raising activity will be considered by the District if it is considered to be in violation of the law.

The General Counsel of the New York State Education Department has addressed the fundraising issue in a Q&A posted on the SED website which makes clear that the recent fundraising at the high school is prohibited by law (19.6) and violates board policy (1330):

Questions and Answers on Solicitation of Charitable Donations from School Children

Fundraising for outside organizations, third parties and non-school related causes is not permitted and none is permitted if it is in violation of the law which includes Regents Rule 19.6, the direct solicitation of charitable donations from children in the public schools on school property during regular school hours.

Illegal fundraising in the New Rochelle schools had not only been rampant over the years but a source of overt corruption.

We have previously reported on the sale of pizza in the hallways at Isaac E. Young Middle School where a District employee was paid a stipend to be a “fundraiser” at the school, and was ostensibly raising money for the PTA. Except that the PTA was not receiving any money and records obtained under a Freedom of Information request showed thousands of dollars unaccounted for.

In 2010, a District employee claimed to be raising money for the people of Haiti following a major earthquake. The employee then used the money to buy a plane ticket and go on a trip to visit her family.

Students have shown up in school classrooms, with their parents, soliciting money from elementary school students.

For years, the Night School Principal at New Rochelle High School ran a concession stand out of her office then, allegedly, used the profits to travel abroad over the summers. Among the items sold were sandwiches made by severely disabled students, in an illegal kitchen, for no pay. A few feet away, a bank of vending machines illegally sold tens of thousands of dollars annually in soda, salty snacks and candy during school hours. There was no contract with any vending machine company, no explanation of where the money went, how the company got access to the building to install them stock the machines. When this reporter called one company the owner offered and then paid this reporter a kickback of $700 (which was immediately turned over to the school business office)

Employees and students have for years sold snacks and candy out of classrooms, lockers and offices.

This practice was addressed over the summer by Interim New Rochelle High School Principal Joseph Starvaggi in an email to staff on July 20, 2019:

Please be advised that all food sales must be approved by the principal or assistant principal. All money raised must be submitted to Mary Kay Fama at the end of each week. Please do not sell candy or unhealthy snacks. Also, understand that students who are late for class because they were buying food between classes, should not be admitted into class.

This does not even address the highly questionable, long-time practice of accepting cash at the gates of sporting events rather than selling tickets at a central ticket location.

There has been a lot of cash floating around the school district over the years, no accountability for how that money is obtained and what happens to it once it is obtained — along with rampant corruption where employees have been arrested and convicted of stealing money.

Invariably these cash transactions are portrayed as advancing some greater good despite their being illegal under state law, prohibited under board policy and done with little or no financial oversight.

The rise in illegal political activity mirrors, and in some cases overlaps with the illegal fundraising.

In 2014, the Superintendent’s Day conference that September morphed into a Zephyr Teachout for Governor rally. Teachout was being supported by F.U.S.E. leadership and members were encouraged to volunteer for and donate to her campaign.

About that time, at Jefferson School, a teacher and senior FUSE officer, had her students create signs and march around the hallways to “teach” children about union picketing.

Last year, Indivisible Westchester organized a political rally on school grounds under the guise of a supposed student-led (but actually parent and staff led) anti-gun rally.

Friday, teachers at the high school organized, led and promoted a walkout ostensibly to promote action on climate change. Not only did this violate 1310 but 5520 as the students left the high school campus during the event.

There has been an increasing amount of political activity on school grounds – a communist organization came to campus a few years ago to lead an anti-Trump march, there have been activities to oppose the incoming Superintendent — rallies, marches and demonstrations which are not just about Dr. Feijóo’s hiring, displaying images of President Obama in school buildings, fundraising for various causes targeting children at elementary and middle schools, and more.

The New York State School Board Association addressed this issue in 2012, in particular rulings in a case brought by the United Federation of Teachers:

The 2008 United Federation of Teachers lawsuit (Weingarten v. Board of Education) stemmed from school officials’ enforcement of regulations requiring school employees to remain politically neutral while on duty.

The union argued that school leaders improperly violated their First Amendment free speech rights by banning teachers from wearing political buttons, prohibiting the posting of candidate political materials on union bulletin boards and prohibiting delivery of political materials to staff mailboxes.

In a pair of decisions in 2008 and 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled that school officials could not restrict the distribution of political materials in areas off-limits to students. But he affirmed the district’s right to ban the wearing of buttons promoting political candidates in classrooms.

The judge cited other federal court decisions that describe students as “a captive audience” and declared that allowing teachers to express political viewpoints in the classroom “has the potential to turn into indoctrination.”

The NYSSBA created model board policy 1310 to address the issue of political activity by employees in public schools which the New Rochelle Board of Education adopted in 1998.

Despite requests for an explanation, the New Rochelle school board has yet to explain how it reconciles Board 1310, 1330 or Regents Rule 19.6 with the fundraising and political activity that has grown increasingly prevalent in the New Rochelle schools

The danger here is that when a school board allows political activity by employees on school grounds it sends a message that it supports the views expressed by that political activity and would reasonably lead students, employees and parents who do not share the same views to feel unwelcome, that their contrary views are not allowed, that they may be subject to retaliation and more.

The concern with fundraising is that it may stigmatize low-income children who are unable to donate money.

Nothing good will come by not following board policies. The board’s failure to implement 5520 – Closed Campus at New Rochelle High School, led directly to the death of one student, a grievous injury to another and a number of students becoming convicted felons and going to prison.

If the board no longer wants to enforce 1310 or 1330 they need to hold a vote and repeal them. Otherwise, the board needs to see to it that the administration ends immediately the growing practice of employees using school grounds, school resources, access to students, to engage in political activity and to see to it that those who violate board policies and state law are disciplined.

School employees are hired and paid with taxpayer money to work in a place where students are required to be. To continue to allow illegal fundraising and illegal political activity during school hours, while these employees are on the clock, on school grounds, in a position to influence a captive audience is to effectively allow the misappropriation of taxpayer money by employees to advance personal agendas by targeting children.