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Open Letter to the New Rochelle BOE on Falsehoods Regarding my Concerns with the School Buddy Program

Written By: Robert Cox

To: New Rochelle Board of Education President Amy Moselhi, et al.

Amy,

Thank you for sharing your recent correspondence with Ingerman Smith, your outside counsel, and their correspondence with the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA) regarding my concerns with the School Board’s School Buddy Program.

Unfortunately, it is replete with falsehoods, misrepresentations and errors about my past statements and my one hour interview of NYSSBA General Counsel Jay Worona.

I am more than a bit annoyed and expect the record to be corrected.

The purpose of my interview of Mr. Worona last April was to learn about New York State law as it pertained to the egregious behavior of then-Board President Jeffrey Hastie which included, but not exclusively, Mr. Hastie entering schools for reasons that included his inspecting classrooms and air conditioning units at Jefferson School and interviewing candidates for a low-level administrator position at New Rochelle High School. Other egregious behavior included negotiating contracts with vendors, conducting his own personal investigation into Apex, threatening non-tenured staff, bypassing the Superintendent to engage directly with staff, effectively hiring and firing staff, demanding IT staff upload employee emails to his personal Google Drive account and much more. My broader concern was that you and other Board members either sat idly by, or actively participated, as Mr. Hastie ran hog-wild in the District.

I have no recollection of asking about or discussing the School Buddy program with Mr. Worona as it was not relevant to my concerns with Mr. Hastie; he certainly did not offer legal opinions about the School Buddy program. And I never said he did.

What he did say on the subject of entering buildings is that a board member had no more right to enter a school building than any other resident which would include attending a public event or a meeting with employees about a student as a parent or guardian. In the case of a board member, apart from the two exceptions stated, the board would have to vote to approve a board member entering a building on any specific occasion and that approval would be for a specific visit not open-ended, that there were no “blank checks”. I followed up on that during the interview to clarify that the board could not vote to grant Mr. Hastie unfettered access to schools at Mr. Hastie’s discretion for an entire school year. Mr. Worona stated the Board could not do so.

My reporting at the time was driven by the fact that although Mr. Hastie had adopted the practice of entering school buildings without board approval since his first month as Board President, I had thought it would end with the conclusion of his final board term on June 30, 2019. I learned in April, to my surprise, that Mr. Hastie was collecting petition signatures and telling people he intended to run for a third term which would likely have meant a second term as Board President and so another 15 months of such improper conduct. I let it be known that if Mr. Hastie ran, I intended to run my own version of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, a series of exposes on Mr. Hastie to run in the month prior to the school board election on May 21st. The first of the articles ran at the end of April.

Hastie agreed to participate in two candidate forums (he was a no-show at the first one) before missing the deadline to file to be on the ballot. Once he dropped out of the race I cancelled the “30 for 30” series and so did not run a story based, in any part, on my interview of Mr. Worona.

On July 2, 2019 I addressed the Board in a public meeting, in part on the topic of “board governance”. I expressed my concern that the creation of “ad hoc” committees and the School Buddy program undermined the chain of command by placing board members in direct contact with district employees. I did not say anything about my interview of Mr. Worona with regards to the School Buddy program as he and I had never discussed the School Buddy program. I also did not address my interview of Mr. Worona because Mr. Hastie, who was the focus of my questions during the interview, was no longer on the Board.

The entirety of my remarks directed at the Board of the District concerning my one hour interview of Mr. Worona last April were made in a recent email on December 13th and several subsequent text messages. In no instance is there any record that I have ever stated that Mr. Worona offered a legal opinion about the School Buddy program. I defy you or your attorneys to show otherwise.

I find it troubling that Mr. Gross, as alleged by Mr. Worona, would falsely state that I asserted that Mr. Worona told me the School Buddy program was illegal. On what basis would Mr. Gross present Mr. Worona with what he purports is a statement of fact?

That is not a rhetorical question. I am entitled to an answer. He must have gotten the notion in his head somehow and it is not from a review of any records. I can only think he got that idea from you.

I am likewise disturbed by the response of Mr. Worona elicited by Mr. Gross.

Mr. Worona has been put on notice that his statement is false, defamatory and actionable. I have demanded he take meaningful corrective action or I will take it for him through my attorney. He has effectively denied ever speaking with me by characterizing my communications with NYSSBA as nothing more than his office responding to an “inquiry” with “excerpts of outlines of the law regarding Board member presence in school buildings during school hours”.

Here are the facts of this matter:

On the morning of April 22, 2019, I reached out by telephone to the New York State School Board Association. I identified myself as a reporter working on a story and asked to speak to Jay Worona, the Deputy Executive Director, General Counsel and Director of Legal & Policy Services. I interviewed Mr. Worona for about an hour; the call on his end was on a speakerphone with NYSBBA Communications Director Al Marlin listening in and making occasional remarks.

Mr. Worona was very friendly and offered to make himself available as a resource should the need arise. At the end of what was a pleasant and informative call, Mr. Worona stated that I could call him anytime with questions about the law as it applied to school boards. He added that he had a set of legal citations previously drafted regarding some unspecified issues in the Newburgh School District, that they did not address everything we had discussed but did address a couple of the points we had discussed so I might find it useful. While I already had the information I wanted from the interview I saw no reason to turn him down so accepted his offer.

Soon after the call, at 11:45 a.m. on April 22, 2019, I received an email from Jay Worona with the subject line “legal citations” which contained two sections: “LEGAL AUTHORITY OF INDIVIDUAL SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS” and “SCHOOL BOARD ACCESS TO PERSONNEL RECORDS”.

Even a cursory review of Worona’s “legal citations” email would show that while some of it is applicable to my concerns about Mr. Hastie much of it is not. This is because the citations were not prepared as a response to my interview of Mr. Worona but as a response to a previous, unrelated inquiry from the Newburgh School District.

At 11:48 a.m. on April 22, 2019, three minutes after Mr. Worona sent his “legal citations” email, I received an email from Al Marlin. He provided his contact information and asked that all future inquiries go through him. I did not respond to that because Mr. Worona had just said I could contact him directly in the future (which I subsequently did on unrelated matters).

On April 24, 2019, Mr. Marlin sent an email requesting that I send him a link to a story “with Jay Worona quotes” when I posted it online.

There are no “Jay Worona quotes” in the legal citations email.

Mr. Marlin is making a fairly standard request of a PR person to see any articles that quote his client. Those quotes could only come from my having interviewed Mr. Worona which I did, for about an hour, which concluded just minutes before the two April 22nd emails described above.

On May 9, 2019 I sent an email to candidates for New Rochelle Board of Education: Peter Cantone, Valarie Williams, Vince Malfetano, Rich Bamberger, and William Ianuzzi. I copied on that email, six members of the New Rochelle Board of Education: Amy Moselhi, Rachel Relkin, Julia Muggia Ochs, Lianne Merchant, Todd Kern, Paul Warhit. I included Jay Worona’s email dated April 22, 2019 with the subject line “legal citations” and wrote:

“The genesis of my question to all of you this evening at the candidate forum was an hour long interview I did with the General Counsel of NYSSBA. He followed up with an email (below) providing legal citations in reference to issues in the Newburgh School District. Some of those same issues apply here.”

As is clear, the idea that the Board President is negotiating a reduction in the Alteris contract as disclosed tonight by Tom Ryan is incredible. I did not hear any motion or resolution at any board meeting where the board authorized Mr. Hastie to interact with Alteris let alone re-negotiate a $200,000 contract. And why would they? We have a school business official and an outside counsel to do that.”

Mr. Hastie stated at a board meeting in September that he went into Jefferson to inspect classrooms said to be overheated, he has sought, obtained and reviewed employee emails, interviewed house principal candidates at NRHS, wandered in and out offices at City Hall questioning employees, requesting information and records (and getting them), I am told he has entered classrooms to observe teachers and more.”

According to Jay Worona, without a public vote authorizing any of this, it is illegal.”

As Ryan’s off-hand remark made clear, this illegal conduct by Mr. Hastie is so common that he thinks nothing of telling a roomful of people at a public event that a board member is engaged in negotiations with a high profile and controversial vendor. And whether a board member or not, why on earth would Ryan disclose ongoing negotiations with Alteris at all! ”

Whichever two of you is elected, you need to think a lot harder than current board members about the implications of board members freelancing as has been the case over the past year. I suggest you reach out to Mr. Worona and educate yourself on what board members can and cannot do. You are certainly not going to get that education from current board members, none of whom have been willing to reign in Mr. Hastie.”

There is no reference to the School Buddy program. My statement about Mr. Worona is not only accurate – that he said Hastie’s actions as described above required a public vote authorizing those actions – but is referenced in part in his “legal citations” email which is why I forwarded the email.

Also on May 9, 2019, I sent an email to FUSE President Martin Daly and FUSE Executive Vice President William Coleman. I also forwarded Jay Worona’s email dated April 22, 2019 with the subject line “legal citations” and wrote:

“It came up at tonight’s meeting where Tom Ryan turned to Magda Parvey and said he had “news” that the Board President was negotiating a reduction in the Alteris contract.”

At a board meeting in September Hastie said he was invited by two teachers to inspect Jefferson because rooms were hot due to lack of A/C.”

I have an email Hastie sent Noam in January apologizing for a delayed response because he was at the high school interviewing candidates for house principal.”

He has routinely wandered through offices at City Hall asking questions, engaging staff, asking them for records and information.”

He requested and obtained employee emails to conduct “investigations”,”

I was told he has gone into classrooms to observe teachers.”

As you can see below, Jay Worona provides citations as a follow up on an hour long interview I did with him that day.”

No board member has the inherent power to do any of what I describe above. Hastie would need to ask board approval each and every time. In the case of emails or personnel records, he could only review them in executive session and could not duplicate them or take them out of the room.”

As his actions are illegal and often directed at FUSE members, I wonder why it has continued without a peep from FUSE.”

I have a personal interest here. It would come as no surprise if I learned he was reading my wife’s email to retaliate against me through her.”

That said, why has FUSE allowed this?”

You will note that in both of my emails dated May 9, 2019 I reference my “hour long interview” of Jay Worona. In the first one, I reference the Newburgh School District as the original recipient of the “legal citations” email. Both emails are focused on Hastie’s conduct. Neither mention the School Buddy program. I accurately state what Mr. Worona told me on the phone, all of which is consistent with the “legal citations” email:

“No board member has the inherent power to do any of what I describe above. Hastie would need to ask board approval each and every time. In the case of emails or personnel records, he could only review them in executive session and could not duplicate them or take them out of the room.”

On the issue of the “legal citations” email drafted for the Newburgh School District note the various points that do not apply to my concerns with Mr. Hastie:

  • the rights and limits of school board members to express their own personal views on school district issues
  • the use of District of funds, facilities or channels of communication to encourage voters to vote in support of or against the school budget or any proposition.
  • the power of individual school board members to call a special meeting of the school board.

This contradicts Mr. Worona’s claim that my communications with NYSSBA was limited to the “legal citations” email sent by his office responding to an inquiry with “excerpts of outlines of the law regarding Board member presence in school buildings during school hours”. His “legal citations” email address a variety of subjects, presumably based on questions raised by someone in Newburgh, two of which pertain to the questions I asked during my one hour interview of Mr. Worona.

As stated, Mr. Hastie did not run for school board, his term ended on June 30, 2019, I never wrote a story based in whole or in part based on my interview of Mr. Worona. For more than six months I was silent on the matter.

On December 3, 2019 I received a phone call from you based on you having listened to a podcast of a radio interview I did the day before on RadioWestchester.com where I described various issues with board governance. You said you wanted me to know you never looked at personnel files. I advised you that I never said you had looked at personnel files. I later listened to the podcast and confirmed this to be the case.

I explained to you that my main concern was with Jeffrey Hastie and that I had been raising my concerns about Hastie’s conduct over the past year, privately to board members and with administrators. I also mentioned the board meeting on July 2, 2019 meeting referenced above.

I reminded you I had addressed the Board on board governance earlier in the year and told you about my research into the various issues including my interview of Jay Worona on April 22, 2019. I followed up by forwarding you the “legal citations” email Mr. Worona sent to me shortly after our phone call on April 22nd with a brief note:

“To: Amy Moselhi

Per our phone conversation just now.

I had a lengthy phone call with Mr. Worona back in April and shortly after addressed the board on these and other points.

Bob Cox”

That statement is entirely accurate.

On December 13, 2019, I wrote an email in which I referenced my interview of Jay Worona on April 22, 2019 and encouraged you to reach out to Mr. Worona which you apparently did not do. Mr. Worona was copied on the email. Instead, you had Mr. Gross contact Mr. Worona and question him about me based on an entirely false claim as described above.

This is what I wrote in my December 13th email about Mr. Worona:

“My understanding from my conversation with Jay Worona of NYSSBA and the information he sent me a few months ago is that a board member has no more right to be in a school for a non-public event that any other person so on what legal basis was Chris Daniello in that classroom today?”

The premise for my question about Mr. Daniello is entirely accurate.

John Gross from Ingerman Smith contacted Mr. Worona. You have not provided any information or record as to what Mr. Gross told Mr. Worona so all I have is Mr. Worona’s reply which indicates Mr. Gross presented fabricated information about me to him. The entirety of what I said to you about Mr. Worona is fully documented in the emails of December 3rd and December 13th. The email thread from December 13th was copied to Mr. Worona. None of it says what Mr. Gross claimed.

Worona states Gross advised him that “the editor of an internet publication “Talk of the Town” (sic) has asserted that I advised him that the New Rochelle Board of Education’s ‘Buddy’ program is illegal.”

I have never asserted that Mr. Worona made any statement to me at all about the New Rochelle Board of Education’s “Buddy” program let alone that he had provided me any legal opinions about the program. On this point I am in full agreement with Mr. Worona that the assertion is incorrect but not for the reason Mr. Worona states. The assertion presented by Mr. Gross is incorrect because I never said it.

I agree with Mr. Worona that he did not advise me “on any matter respecting the ‘Buddy’ program of the New Rochelle City School District” for the simple reason I never asked him about the School Buddy program.

Where Mr. Worona gets into making false or misleading statements is in his effectively denying our one hour phone call on April 22, 2019, that the extent of the information I was provided by NYSSBA is the Newburgh “legal citations” email and that he said not just that “unless authorized by the Board of Education, a Board member has no greater rights than a school district resident to be present in a school building” but that the Board would need to approve each and every instance of a board member being present in a school building, that there were no “blank checks” allowed.

Given the various falsehoods, misrepresentations and outright lies by Mr. Gross and Mr. Worona, it is difficult to credit as truthful any statement or opinion either may offer. I can understand why lawyers representing the New Rochelle Board of Education would engage in falsehoods, misrepresentations and outright lies as there is a long tradition in that regard. I remain mystified as to why the General Counsel for NYSSBA would engage in falsehoods, misrepresentations and outright lies especially given that I have extensive records supporting my account and contradicting his account including three contemporaneous emails from NYSSBA, my AT&T phone records, my notes taken during my hour long interview, my otherwise inexplicable knowledge that the “legal citations” email was drafted in response to an inquiry from the Newburgh School District, my subsequent May 9th emails to the FUSE leadership and to all 2019 school board candidates, including two successful candidates now on the board, and six board members who are still on the board (so 8 of 9 current Board members; I appear to have left off Mr. Daniello in error), and video of my July 2nd speech to the Board which is archived on the District website.

My understanding from Mr. Worona remains that a board member must receive explicit approval from the board for a specific visit (not a “blank check” to enter a given school any day or time during a marking period) and as a result the School Buddy program as currently operated is illegal. I stand by that being the case.

Most of my concerns with the ill-conceived School Buddy program could easily be resolved by limiting the School Buddy program to public events which would be in keeping with past practice of the school board. This would render moot the question of board approval for board members to be present in school buildings. It would also address the practice of some board members photographing and videotaping other people’s children in what parents and guardians rightfully believe to be a non-public setting — and the publication of those images of other people’s children on the Internet. It would address my concern that children and their teachers are being used as props by board members in school board election campaigns. It would address, to a large degree, board members engaging directly with employees thereby circumventing the chain of command, in particular, the Board policy that communications between the Board and the District occur only between the Board President and the Superintendent.

I continue to believe the School Buddy program is a bad idea which paves the way for worse things to come as has happened in other Districts in New York with versions of the School Buddy program: individual Board members gaining influence over tenure decisions, principal hirings, and staffing of hourly employees in “their” schools, soliciting bribes for supporting particular job candidates, and demanding sex from vulnerable employees such as untenured teachers and hourly staff. This has happened elsewhere.

The track record of New Rochelle employees sexually abusing students and taking bribes and kickbacks (and outright larceny) does not support the idea that board members in New Rochelle are immune to abusing their position. We need only look at two recent cases: David Lacher’s unpaid medical insurance premiums and Jeffrey Hastie’s unpaid cruise ship phone calls.

For decades, board members routinely attended school events. They were people with long-standing ties to the community who did not need to be compelled or otherwise publicly shamed into visiting schools or learning about “the school culture and climate, as well as its students and their parents or guardians and its facility and staff”. Sadly, in recent years, the board has had members who never had children in the District, never had children at all, been elected to the Board after just a few years residing in New Rochelle or otherwise have little knowledge or understanding of the New Rochelle community. If that was not clear in the past, it is certainly on full display given the blowback over the hiring of Dr. Feijóo which I called you and warned you about less than three hours after she was announced as the new Superintendent on June 28th. It is worth noting that my concerns about Mr. Hastie certainly came home to roost as that hiring was a decision orchestrated by the highly problematic Jeffrey Hastie, which was entirely the point of my contacting Mr. Worona in the first place.

I would like you to direct Mr. Gross to either produce evidence of his claims about me to Mr. Worona or correct them. I want you to provide me with documentation that this was done. I am dealing with Mr. Worona’s statements separately.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Robert Cox

Publisher and Managing Editor

Talk of the Sound

http://www.talkofthesound.com

UPDATE 12/17: I received a phone call from Jay Worona at 3:33 p.m. We spoke for 36 minutes. There were two other people on the call including Al Marlin. He stated he wanted to clear the air. We both agreed that we never had a conversation about the School Buddy program and that I had never said we had such a conversation. I am not sure we agreed on too much else. I do not have time today to type up my notes from the call. I will endeavor to do so tomorrow.

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