A set of emails shows that Mayor Bill de Blasio planned to make personal calls to push Orthodox Jewish leaders in New York City to pressure state lawmakers to renew mayoral control of city schools—and in return, the mayor would delay and soften the findings of a four-year city investigation into the quality of education at yeshivas.
Last December, a report issued by the Department of Investigation and the Special Commissioner of Investigation for schools found that the city had stalled a Department of Education investigation into 39 yeshivas for at least a year due to “political horse-trading between the Mayor’s and State legislators’ representatives.” One day after the DOI/SCI report was issued, the city released the results of the investigation into yeshivas. That report concluded that just two out of 28 yeshivas that were inspected were offering the quality of secular instruction required under state law.
According to the DOI/SCI’s report on why the investigation had taken so long, “the Mayor was aware that the offer to delay had been made, prior to the final push to secure the votes for mayoral control,” but the evidence at hand did not show he “personally authorized” the agreement.
On Saturday, emails published by the New York Post show de Blasio’s personal involvement with the arrangement.
In June 2017, the mayor’s chief of staff Emma Wolfe told the mayor to call two Orthodox Jewish leaders so they could lobby State Senator Simcha Felder and then-Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan—both of whom had power to sway the then-Republican-controlled Senate—to “renew Mayoral control” of NYC schools.
De Blasio agreed to make the calls, but needed to know what he could offer the Jewish leaders in return, or as he put it, “what Simcha [Felder] is asking for.”
Karin Goldmark—now the Deputy Chancellor for School Planning and Development—replied in a subsequent email that the administration would delay the report regarding yeshivas beyond its scheduled summer 2017 release date. “We have made clear that when we do issue a report it will be gentle and will cite progress (assuming progress continues),” Goldmark wrote.
Minutes later, de Blasio replied: “Very helpful, Karin. Calling him now,” referring to either Leon Goldenberg, a friend and donor, or Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice-president of Agudath Israel of America. (Zwiebel was recently appointed to the mayor’s education advisory council on reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In an awkward twist of timing, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the Orthodox leader de Blasio called on for help in convincing Simcha Felder to extend mayoral control in exchange for slowing down the yeshivas report, is a member of the mayor’s re-opening advisory council on education. https://t.co/tGzOem6DDh
— Shira Hanau (@shirahanau) May 10, 2020
That same day in 2017, state lawmakers issued a two-year extension of mayoral control. Both Zwiebel and Goldenberg denied any quid-pro-quo to the Post.
“The mayor has always pretended that he was far from this issue, that he needed time for the investigation, that he was concerned about the yeshiva students who were denied secular education, and that he was generally in an arms-length position,” David Bloomfield, an education law professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, told Gothamist.
“The emails show that he was totally involved in delaying the investigation that’s required by the Department of Education and that he softened the findings to accommodate his political patrons,” Bloomfield said. “This is the smoking gun of direct mayoral involvement in delaying the investigation and working hand-in-glove with the ultra-orthodox yeshivas to soften the findings.”
Naftuli Moster, the executive director of the Young Advocates for Fair Education [Yaffed], which filed the complaint in 2015 that started the yeshiva investigation, said the internal emails show how de Blasio and city officials “abused their power by making a deal with Ultra-Orthodox leaders to interfere and delay the release of the findings of an investigation into the denial of the rights of tens of thousands of New York City children to receive a basic education.”
“With these alarming facts now fully public, we are demanding immediate actions be taken to reverse the corrupt results of these unconscionable acts,” Moster said.
He called on the Attorney General’s office to launch its own investigation. Yaffed will hold a press conference on Monday.
While the December DOI/SCI report did not find any criminal conduct, Bloomfield said it “raises questions about the independence and objectivity of the Department of Investigation.”
The DOI and SCI haven’t responded to our requests for comment.
The DOI/SCI conclusion that the mayor did not “personally authoriz[e]” the agreement is contradicted by the emails published by the Post, which clearly show de Blasio authorizing and approving the agreement to delay and cushion the yeshiva report. When asked who did authorize the agreement, if not de Blasio, mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein insisted, “The report was not ready for release.”
“Every one of these emails was thoroughly examined by the Department of Investigation months ago,” Goldstein said. “The only thing they convey was an intention to avoid taking cheap shots before the facts had come in. They show no delay in our review and explicitly state we care about high standards for students.”
Goldstein added that few schools had been visited at that point for the report and calling allies to push for legislation like mayoral control is a part of the mayor’s job.
During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on April 29th, Moster, of Yaffed, has called for more investigations by the city and the state to ensure yeshiva students are receiving “as robust a secular education as possible at this challenging moment, just as other public and private schools are doing.”
Yaffed has raised concerns that secular education at yeshivas had further worsened during the pandemic, noting some were offering “a maximum of 30 minutes per day of remote secular education,” the group said. At least one yeshiva was broken up in April after meeting in-person, in violation of social distancing rules aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus.
“The coronavirus outbreak is no excuse for education officials to look the other way when it comes to educational neglect,” Moster said late last month.
Bloomfield added, “The mayor’s accommodation to the leadership is in direct proportion to denial of educational rights to tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox yeshiva students’ past, present, and future.”
“The situation that’s occurring now in that community will be repeated as it was during the measles epidemic, as it is now occurring with the coronavirus, and will inevitably occur again unless there’s a change in the educational system,” Bloomfield said.