With a budget of over $25 billion, an employee roster of over 136,000 and over 1,400 buildings to manage, there is plenty of room for theft and corruption at the New York City Department of Education. There has been for years. A high definition projector, bought with federal No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top funds, can easily become the home entertainment system of an employee. Money can be taken from here and moved there and no one would notice. It happens and it happens a lot. School administrators can squander their millions of budget dollars and the likelihood of anyone asking or investigating is slim to none. Any whistleblower, whether parent or staff member, can be kicked to the curb and out of a school building with a simple request and false allegation – tenure or no tenure. Of course the beauty of tenure is that it is more difficult to fire a teacher who says something when they see something. If there is one thing corrupt DOE employees know about their employer, it is that there is little to no accountability present in the system.
When superintendents are busy on drive-by school visits and support networks are boroughs away, who would know if a school administrator is where they are supposed to be while on the clock. In early 2014, shortly after NYC had a new mayor and school’s chancellor, we read about Principal Marcella Sills from Far Rockaway’s “School of No.” Principal Sills had an awful habit of showing up late while her students didn’t have the necessary materials for instruction and were shown movies in the auditorium instead. Her lateness and habit of creating false records on time cards was occurring for years. Only after the allegations from the community finally hit mainstream media did the NYC Special Commissioner of Investigation act quickly and substantiate a case against her in just one short month. SCI: An investigation found time and attendance abuse at PS 106 in Queens involving the Principal Marcella Sills and former Assistant Principal Tonya West
Depending on their status, an employee can be caught hiring their family members or calling out sick while going on vacation and their discipline could amount to nothing for administrators or termination for teachers. The disciplinary process is often arbitrary and capricious and so is the investigative.
Sometimes it is not as easy as throwing a school’s digital camera, into your bag and taking it home for your upcoming getaway. If you want the big money, then you have to think bigger and be bolder. Some, and perhaps too many, NYC DOE administrators use the after hours overtime time cards as their personal ATM. Or as we call it, Automatic Taxpayer Machine. Remember where that $25 billion DOE budget comes from; you, the taxpayer.
On January 26, 2012, one of those whistleblowers, mentioned above, blew a whistle whose sound would reverberate for years to come. I, Francesco Portelos, an educator and new parent in the Berta A. Dreyfus Intermediate School 49 school community saw something and I said something. On the evening of January 26, 2012, while my wife was changing our 8 month old son Alexander, I sat in front of laptop in the living room of our home. It is located just 1.4 miles from Berta Dreyfus IS 49 and it would be my son’s future middle school. On the laptop I saw this logo on the NYC Special Commissioner of Investigation’s website.
“Don’t let corruption and crime rob your child of an education!” I heard my son’s cries and thought that in just a few short years he will be attending this school that was ranked 949th middle school in New York State. I wasn’t going to let crime and corruption rob his future education or that of countless others in my community. While school staff members did not have the material they needed to make the most of their lessons, Principal Linda Hill was clocking in and billing the taxpayer for work she was not doing.
I sent an email to Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon that night. In sum and substance I had witnessed Principal Hill attend the School Leadership Team (SLT) meetings, a paid overtime activity, while she was also billing for a separate program called Achieve Now Academy. Her rate was about $43 an hour. In that email to the commissioner I sent three years of SLT minutes indicating her attendance and time. Three years. All they needed were the time cards that showed she was punching in for the Achieve Now Academy. Those I did not have access to (yet), but with their subpoena power, they could literally walk into school on the January 27, 2012 and obtained them.
THE MILLION DOLLAR COVER UP BEGINS (START THE CLOCK)
Although SCI received half the evidence they needed and were only missing the time cards, they decided not to take the case. They instead referred the case of investigating a DOE administrator to… the DOE. The Office of Special Investigation (OSI) would now be the one investigate whether Principal Linda Hill was double dipping.
For the next 900 days OSI would keep the case open.
For the next 900 days the DOE attorneys, press office, investigators, directors, and many higher ups covering for Principal Linda Hill’s malfeasance would respond “…the case is still pending.” A phrased used as a delay tactic and shield.
For the next 900 days the target was now me, Francesco Alexander Portelos, parent and educator.
On record and under sworn testimony Principal Linda Hill indicated I had no negative items in my teaching career prior to January 2012.
In fact, my record was stellar and full of letters of recommendation, satisfactory observations and over 70 thank you emails. (See THE GOOD)
However, just three school days after my allegation of double dipping to SCI:
- There were three separate investigations reported to SCI about me (all on January 30,2012)
- hacking a website I own (I didn’t hack any website)
- texting students and making it look like it came from Principal Hill (I never text a student)
- using my DOE computer to run a real estate business (2 years later SCI admitted to errors after confiscating my computers. They planted files and manipulated evidence. (See SCI Planting Files and Confiscating Computers)
- That same day I was also summoned to my first two disciplinary hearings of my career.
- for allegedly cursing at two teachers in a private meeting. (I was cursed at and I recorded it)
- emailing school UFT union members about UFT union business and not getting Principal Hill’s permission.
- The first five (5) negative items placed in my stellar personnel file were placed just days after I blew the whistle on corruption at my neighborhood school. (See the disciplinary files and hear the audio here THE BAD).
[$$$$ KEEP IN MIND THE MAN HOURS THAT HAVE STARTED TO BE ALLOCATED FOR THIS CASE. TIME BILLED BY INVESTIGATORS AND ATTORNEYS, NOT TO MENTION DIRECTORS OF LABOR RELATIONS AND HUMAN RESOURCES AS WELL AS THE SUPERINTENDENT AND PRINCIPAL HERSELF. I HAVE BEEN FURNISHED WITH OVER 10,000 PAGES OF EMAILS AND LETTERS IN REGARDS TO MY CASE ALONE.]
Now I was not aware of the investigations launched against me until weeks later, but apparently Principal Linda Hill was very aware of my interest in her overtime time cards. In a meeting held at Superintendent Erminia Claudio’s office on February 14, 2012, the first thing Principal Linda Hill states is “…and he is looking into my time cards.” Since the first 2 trumped up disciplinary letters did not scare me, there at the Superintendent’s office, I received a third disciplinary hearing. Yes, three hearings in just two weeks. This was was in regards to me staying 27 minutes too late in my classroom. I’m not making this up. Throughout this whole three year cover up process, Principal Linda Hill was being advised every single step of the way by DOE attorney Marisol Vazquez, Esq. This attorney advised Principal Hill that she discipline me for working too hard. (Marisol, I have a special place on a wall in my house where I will hang up your license.)
After hearing that I was being disciplined for staying too late, I looked over at Superintendent Erminia Claudio with hands open. “See what I mean. I’m being harassed and retaliated against for raising concerns.” Ms. Claudio defended Principal Hill’s actions. I was naive back then and did not realize that Superintendent Erminia Claudio was an accomplice here. Every dollar stolen by Principal Linda Hill was with the approval of the superintendent.
It was now not enough that I had three disciplinary letters in just three weeks and that I was made the subject of three separate investigations. Before February 2012, the shortest month of the year would end, I would have another investigation called in by Principal Linda Hill and my class disrupted by investigators from SCI. On February 28, 2012, two SCI investigators, Robert Laino and Michael Kenny, were escorted to my classroom by Assistant Principal Joanne Aguirre. While my 7th grade honors class was still present, my desktop computer was unplugged and taken away. An hour later the two investigators were at my house taking additional equipment.
As I staggered that evening, trying to make sense of everything that was suddenly transpiring at work and absorbing the news my wife shared (we were expecting a second child), I placed my young son down, picked up a laptop and created this very blog. If they were going to come after my career, then the whole world was going to know about it.
THE GLOVES WERE OFF, NEVER TO BE PUT ON AGAIN. IT WAS MY TURN TO FIGHT.
I was very naive and ignorant. I did not know there were thousands out there being bullied and harassed for being too old, too expensive or just whistleblowers like myself. I called the site ProtectPortelos.org thinking I was the only one. I began by sharing all my accolades before I exercised my First Amendment Right and raised concerns and contrasting it to all the negative items now being thrown at me and my young teaching career.
THE COVER UP E$CALATE$
It was March 2012 and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s NYC Department of Education was now in frantic mode. My site was getting more and more visits. I suddenly receive my first unsatisfactory classroom observation that lasted two periods (unheard of) and took place the morning I returned from a week long jury duty.
According to testimony, around mid March OSI Investigator Lawrence Scott arrived to IS 49’s office and collected everyone’s time cards. At this point Principal Linda Hill testified she stopped “the practice” of billing for two programs at the same time. At a later point in time I too acquired Principal Linda Hill’s time cards through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. I tabulated her overtime billed and created this interesting graph of her per session activity over several years. Her overtime billed drops significantly. However, after she is under investigation the DOE’s Office of Safety and Youth Development increase her budget for Achieve Now Academy to $100,000.
Shortly after, the NY Post was outside my house with a telescopic lens and published this article on March 18, 2012, just a week after my blog went live.
After this article was published, Superintendent Erminia Claudio and Principal Linda Hill made requests for me to be removed from school and reassigned. After they were told “they did not have enough,” they just simply added more frivolous investigations. With the help of SCI’s Richard Condon, Thomas Fennell and Regina Loughran, DOE attorneys Robin Singer, Esq., Marisol Vazquez, Esq., Tracey Cooney, Esq. and current General Counsel Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, Esq. as well as DOE Human Resources directors Lawrence Becker, Andrew Gordon and Edward Schlenoff I was under 18 investigations by April 26, 2012 I was removed.
I went from not having any negative items on my record on January 26, 2012, when Case 12-533 was initiated, to having:
- over 18 investigations,
- an unsatisfactory classroom observation,
- three disciplinary letters to file,
- computers confiscated
- false police reports filed against me
and was ultimately removed in exactly three months.
THAT WAS JUST THE BEGINNING
DOE Rules and regulations were broken and violated, as were union contract articles. I was exiled tow boroughs and twenty miles away to a small basement with gated windows.
For the next two years an epic, and very costly, battle was fought. For every shot they took at me, I gave two back and a kick. All the while Principal Linda Hill’s case was “pending” and dormant.
I’ll fast forward and give you the headlines in chronological order:
Rubber-room teacher voted in as union rep | New York Post Jun 17, 2012 – Teachers at Staten Island’s IS 49 elected Francesco Portelos as their UFT chapter leader.
Warrengate – Hiding Misconduct in Education DOE FOIL Office states they cannot find the overtime time cards for IS 49 Principal Linda Hill located at 101 Warren St. Staten Island.
New York City Teacher Awaiting Hearing Streams Himself Live from Rubber Room The Huffington Post Oct 8, 2012 – Staten Island teacher Francesco Portelos has been streaming live video of his stint in a pseudo Department of Education “rubber room” as he …
It would be over a year that I sat without being charged for anything. All the while Case 12-533 lay dormant. The DOE moved to fire me based on a vague and false report published by SCI.
City moving to fire teacher who blogged his “rubber room …ny.chalkbeat.org Apr 25, 2013 – Portelos, a teacher at Staten Island’s I.S. 49 who became famous for … Hill first initiated the investigations when she complained to SCI that Portelos worked … wrote on his website as he live-blogged his reactions to the report.
My hearing began in September 2013 and was supposed to last several days. Instead it lasted 6 months with 21 hearings days. Just to go back to the money the taxpayers were paying, the hearing officer was paid over $30,000 and the court reporter at least $13,000. At any given time there were at least two to three DOE attorney’s present and that did not include the countless hours spent researching and preparing or the many other attorneys in the office also working on this case.
In the end I was not terminated, most of the charges were dismissed, but I was found guilty of 11 charges. Five were for my actions as a UFT Chapter Leader, which is protected activity, and the other six for my actions as a concerned community parent. Apparently I “caused a disruption to the system.” You’re damn right I did. The system needs a disruption. Corruption that hurts our students should be uncovered. Teachers and parents need to speak up as do administrators who witness malfeasance. As I said in the beginning, $25 billion is a lot and there is plenty of room for theft.
Let’s not forget that after my case was over and we were expecting a decision, the DOE had me falsely arrested and held for 33 hours when no crime was committed. The goal was to at least have a case opened up that would keep me in the rubber room for another year or so. It failed and I did not even see a judge as the Kings County District Attorney declined to prosecute. (Read Workplace Bullying Continues – My 33 Hours Behind Bars)
Almost as bad as that is what happened in November 2013. I would occasionally email OSI to check on their case against Principal Linda Hill. Sure the DOE had thrown obstacles and distractions for me and the public, but I didn’t lose focus. I even had a counter on my blog that counted up from January 26, 2012.
I received this email from former OSI Director Candace McLaren:
The investigation has been completed, and was, therefore, not reassigned. The report is currently under review.
Ms. McLaren indicated that the investigation was complete, but not the outcome. We eventually found that Principal Hill was found guilty of the allegation I alleged. Therefore she was found guilty as far back as October/November 2013. As part of the ongoing cover up, they held on to the file all while my 3020-a termination hearing was underway. Imagine if that news came out during my hearing. Perhaps Arbitrator Felice Busto would have actually had even more evidence to show retaliation and maybe she would not have fined me $10,000.
In July 2014, I received this after yet another inquiry is made as to the status of the elusive Case 12-533:
Mr. Portelos, Please be advised that the allegation concerning Ms. Hill was substantiated.
Substantiated huh? They could have figured that out in a day back in 2012.
In the end I had over 34 investigations and 38 charges brought against me only after I alleged financial misconduct against Principal Linda Hill. That is 72 bullets shot at my career. 72!!! That doesn’t include disciplinary letters, wrongful exile to a distant location and countless other tactics to deter focus from theft.
My salary alone for the two years I sat in exile was about $150,000 plus benefits. The cost of substitutes was another $60,000. A 2008 study found the average cost to fire a tenured teacher was about $300,000. This was no longer 2008 and I was no average case. There were over 12 investigators assigned to my case, about a dozen attorneys and top brass directors. My Federal lawsuit has furnished over 10,000 pages of emails and notes. All those reading,discussing and forwarding were being paid 6-figure salaries for countless man-hours spent. This was a very expensive case.
IT GETS WORSE
If Principal Linda Hill was actually found guilty of theft, then what happened to her?
I requested via FOIL a copy of the disciplinary letter she received to file. They responded that none exist.
My attorney and I later questioned her under oath where we found she was not fined, or disciplined at all.
When a teacher or assistant principal is reassigned or disciplined, the decision is made by DOE Employee Relations and Deputy General Counsel. The decision to reassign, charge and discipline a principal though is different. The chancellor would make that decisions. Since this case was closed and finalized in 2014, this decision to impose a fine or charge Principal Linda Hill for termination fell on Chancellor Carmen Farina.
When Principal Linda Hill first became a principal in 2005, she was assigned a mentor.
In the Chancellor’s second month in office, she made sure to giver her mentee a “shout out.”
“ Principal Linda Hill has created a school atmosphere of communication and collaboration. She has made it her mission to bring struggling students to grade level through enrichment and other programs. Administrators and staff, for instance, serve as one-on-one mentors to at-risk students. The engaging school culture includes trips, cultural events, celebrations, and interdisciplinary thematic,learning experiences. I especially love the school’s mantra: “At Dreyfus, we learn, grow, and succeed together.”
– Chancellor Farina, February 2014
Months after Principal Linda Hill was found guilty of fraud, by the chancellor’s office, Chancellor Fariña paid a visit to the school. Principal Hill was again commended during that visit.
Conflict of Interest? Students, staff and parents last. There is no accountability. All responsible politicians have been notified since 2012. Silence.