fighting a fire

Commission finds city discriminated in forcing principal to resign

The former principal of a dual-language Arabic-English school was forced to resign by city officials who discriminated against her, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found today.

A report by the commission found that in 2007, when Khalil Gibran International Academy interim principal Debbie Almontaser was forced to resign, Department of Education officials acted out of ethnic and religious bias. Almontaser, an Arab Muslim, was asked to leave the school after some found comments she made in the press offensive and began a campaign to paint her as an extremist. Since then, the school has struggled to get back on its feet and Almontaser is arguing that she should be allowed to have her old job back.

The commission’s report states that “the DOE succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel, and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on the DOE as an employer.” It goes on to suggest that the DOE consider reinstating Almontaser.

The city’s Deputy Chief of Labor and Employment Law, Paul Marks, said in a statement that the commission’s findings were “without any basis whatsoever.”

“The DOE in no way discriminated against Ms. Almontaser and she will not be re-instated. If she continues to pursue litigation, we will vigorously defend against her groundless allegations,” Marks said.

Almontaser’s attorney, Alan Levine, said though the DOE had rejected previous requests for Almontaser to return to the school, the commission’s report could influence city officials.

“The EEOC is an agency with considerable expertise,” Levine said. “Its findings should be given considerable weight.”

Last year, a District Court judge found that Almontaser’s comments were not protected by the First Amendment.


New York, New York March 12, 2010

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued a Determination in which it finds that the Department of Education forced Debbie Almontaser, the former interim acting principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), to resign in order to appease her anti-Arab and anti-Muslim critics. The Commission ruled that, in demanding Ms. Almontaser’s resignation, the “DOE succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel, and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on the DOE as an employer.”

“This is a stunning and important vindication of what Debbie and her supporters have been claiming all along — that the Department of Education succumbed to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab prejudice, committing a terrible injustice and sending a dangerous message about the ability of voices of bigotry and hatred to determine which public schools get to exist and who should lead them,” said educator and writer Paula Hajar.

The Commission also held that Ms. Almontaser was the victim of discrimination when she subsequently applied for the position of permanent principal. It was “clear,” the commission held, that, when she applied, she was not evaluated on the basis of her credentials, noting that the DOE had announced before Almontaser’s application was ever seen “that she would not be considered” for the position.

“I am delighted by the EEOC’s Determination, a step on the road to justice for Debbie Almontaser. It is high time for the DOE to admit that it has done her a terrible wrong. Her good name and reputation deserve to be redeemed,” said Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, one of the signatories of the letter from Jewish leaders in support of Almontaser that was sent to the Mayor and Chancellor last year.

Commenting on the Commission’s finding, Alan Levine, one of Ms. Almontaser’s lawyers, said: “Debbie Almontaser was victimized twice, first, when she was subjected to an ugly smear campaign orchestrated by anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigots, and second, when the DOE capitulated to their bigotry. But the bigots didn’t have the power to take her job away. The DOE did. To its everlasting shame, the DOE did the bigots’ work. Now the EEOC has reminded us that it is the responsibility of government to stand up to the forces of discrimination, not to give into them.”

In a letter accompanying its Determination, the EEOC has asked the DOE to consider Almontaser’s demand for reinstatement and an award of damages.

EEOC Determination


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”