The Hempstead school district has “rampant and corrosive corruption, waste, and gross illegalities,” a terminated deputy school superintendent claimed, in the latest federal lawsuit filed against the troubled district and members of its school board.
The plaintiff, Varleton McDonald, says he spoke with the state Education Department and was also questioned by the FBI about illegal practices in the district, according to court documents filed at Central Islip federal court on October 10. His attorney says McDonald’s January 17 firing was in retaliation for exposing the issues.
“We’re not sure what the district’s contentions are…the district has only expressed in public statements that Dr. McDonald’s allegations are false,” says Mark Goidell, McDonald’s attorney. “So, we still don’t know what the district’s position is, but we’re looking forward to flushing that out as the litigation goes forward.”
Besides the school district, the suit also names as defendants school board members David Gates, Randy Stith and LaMont Johnson. McDonald is asking for monetary damages for not only his loss of employment but also for mental anguish, damage to his reputation, diminished employment opportunities, and humiliation.
Goidell said that despite his client’s strong background and experience as an educational leader/reformer, McDonald has been unable to find suitable employment since his discharge, due to the “blemish” on his record resulting from the Hempstead school district’s action.
Sources say there are “multiple pending investigations” related to the Hempstead school district, which has long suffered from an array of problems including gang violence, cultural and racial tensions among the district’s black and Latino students, a 37 percent graduation rate, and illegal hiring practices, among many other issues.
Some former school board members say McDonald was terminated not only because of his exposure of corruption and waste in the district but also his close connection to the embattled former Hempstead School District Superintendent Dr. Shimon Waronker, with whom he worked in New York City, helping to reform troubled, low-performing schools.
Waronker, who recommended McDonald to the board, has been on paid administrative leave since January 9, pending a hearing related to the board’s charges of allegedly breaching his contract.
Some of the gross financial improprieties McDonald became aware of that were cited in the suit included a side catering business being conducted by the district’s head of Food Services, utilizing the equipment and facilities of the district. Other improprieties included instances of grade-fixing for the purpose of getting more state aid in addition to an independent audit that found payroll discrepancies and unchecked overtime.
Jonathan Scher, an attorney for the district and board members, told Newsday that the lawsuit “has no merit whatsoever,” and that the complaint’s allegations were “wholly fictitious and warrant the board asserting a character claim for defamation.”
But Gwen Jackson, also a former Hempstead board member, says McDonald was good for the district. Although McDonald had previously worked with Dr. Waronker in New York City, he was not selected by Waronker, she says.
“He [Dr. McDonald].…was interviewed by a committee consisting of teachers, administrators, principals, and staff,” she says. “He was selected by this committee. So, everything was done above board.”
She adds that McDonald understood Waronker’s vision for the district.
“Dr. Waronker also needed to work with someone that he could trust, that had his back, because he was in ‘enemy territory,’” she says. “From day one, there were people out to sabotage Dr. Waronker’s every move… Unfortunately, Mr. McDonald got caught in the crossfire.”
“His reputation is tarnished,” she continues. “And for what? Just because he wanted to help. This has become a pattern in the district. Whenever someone tries to do the right thing, he or she is fired.”