Yonkers public schools, New York state’s fourth-largest school district, is already known as a place plagued by mismanagement, waste, corruption, poor student outcomes and a never-ending struggle for state funds.
It’s a place where some 25,200 students crowd into neglected city school buildings every day, lacking anywhere near the number of guidance counselors, social workers and librarians as their better-off suburban neighbors. Eight of the city’s 39 schools are considered chronically struggling by the state, based on test scores and graduation rates.
It’s also a place where the city Board of Education finally got around to firing a teacher 11 months after he started serving a 22-year prison sentence for kidnapping, The Journal News/lohud.com reported in December.
The latest blow to the City of Hills (where nothing is on the level, as the saying goes) landed last week when two top union leaders were caught in an ambush video advising a “teacher” on how to cover up a scenario where a black child was hit and left bloodied and bruised in an incident involving a “racial aspect.” According to the video posted at Lohud.com, the white teacher tells the union honchos he then took off for two weeks to Mexico on an unapproved, paid vacation.
Longtime Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Patricia Puleo emphatically — and profanely — tells the teacher to keep his mouth shut: “You don’t (expletive) tell anybody anything.”
YFT Vice President Paul Diamond in a separate session casually remarks, “Kids get bruised all the time.”
The “teacher” turned out to be not an educator at all, but controversial activist James O’Keefe, of the nonprofit Project Veritas, which claims to investigate and expose corruption in public and private institutions. O’Keefe, 31, in the past has posed as a pimp in undercover videos targeting the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and as a telephone worker to gain access to Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office. That last one got him arrested for trespass by the FBI. Associates posed as Muslim donors in a video sting involving National Public Radio.
When O’Keefe shows up in Yonkers, union officials set up the conversation as a hypothetical situation, presumably to shield themselves; they don’t ask him his name, what school he works in or for any kind of identification. Teachers are mandated by state law to report allegations of child abuse.
“You don’t have to be honest,” Diamond tells him. “I mean we can talk in theory. … Yeah, I can just babble in theory, that way I don’t know anything firsthand from you.”
The 17-minute video was released on the Project Veritas site last week and quickly sparked outrage and calls from city leaders for the two union officials to resign. Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano wants to cut off contract negotiations while the city inspector general investigates and even the Yonkers PTA has turned against the union brass, saying it supported YFT members who would be willing to seek new leadership.
“Beyond the growing national embarrassment this situation has caused, we worry for both the safety of our children and the integrity of the personnel and time & attendance systems and procedures in place at the Yonkers Public Schools,” City Council Majority Leader John Larkin said in a statement. “What kind of people would conspire to conceal child abuse and assist in covering up a teacher going AWOL for two weeks without permission?”
Puleo, the union president, suggests in the video that O’Keefe’s sudden disappearance could have been emergency family leave after Mexican “drug dealers” abducted his relatives.
“These tapes reflects very poorly on our beloved City and its employees and they are difficult to watch,” Councilman Dennis Shepherd said. “The two City employees depicted therein display blatant disregard for the integrity of our school system and do not appear to be overly concerned at the prospect of defrauding the City and manipulating the system for personal gain. This unethical and amoral behavior has now been rebroadcast to tens of millions of viewers throughout the nation. What a sad day for Yonkers.”
“The YFT is not now nor has it ever — been about one or two individuals,” the union said in a statement. “The mayor's action is political opportunism. He is recklessly jeopardizing ($39) million in state aid increases that are contingent on successful negotiations and which would greatly benefit Yonkers students. The mayor is rushing to judgment over a deceptively edited attack video … Facts, not partisan politics, are needed. Good-faith negotiations should continue."
Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, is reviewing the matter and is “prepared to act if a breach of ethics is found.” The AFT said in a separate statement that it is "commissioning an independent, full and fair investigation to determine whether the video is accurate…"
"What we do know is that the video is based on a series of lies and deceptions,” Korn told The Journal News. “It was cut and sliced at least 14 times. It's an attack piece manufactured by a right-wing extremist."
The Yonkers video is described on the Project Veritas site as the first in the group’s new series on teachers unions. In 2010, O’Keefe produced a series of undercover videos targeting the New Jersey Educators Association, which was then in negotiations over teacher pay and tenure.
The YFT’s latest statement, reported Wednesday, was to ask Yonkers schools to keep paying Diamond his $132,813-a-year salary through the 2016-17 school year while he performs his union duties. Diamond is a teacher but Yonkers releases him from classroom work so he can help run the YFT.