Special commissioner clears L.E.S. school of theft


BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Parents and administrators of the Lower East Side’s Shuang Wen School (P.S. 184) have been cleard of allegations of theft by the city, according to a report issued last week by the Department of Education’s Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation.

The Nov. 30 report, addressed to city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, was the result of a year and a half of allegations involving robbery of school donations, funds intended for an annual school field trip to China and other serious charges made by a group of concerned parents starting in 2008.

The S.C.I. report comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by another Shuang Wen parents’ group against D.O.E. last summer demanding an end to the slew of ongoing department-initiated investigations.

The report also marks a conclusion to S.C.I.’s investigations. However, the special commissioner’s probes are separate from D.O.E.’s numerous investigations of Shuang Wen, which are still ongoing, according to D.O.E. spokesperson Matthew Mittenthal.

While D.O.E. acknowledges that certain allegations of financial wrongdoing proved false in the S.C.I. report, Mittenthal cited several other improprieties the S.C.I. found the school to be guilty of.

S.C.I. Commissioner Richard Condon’s findings, Mittenthal said, “show that standard operating procedures, chancellor’s regulations, and city Conflicts of Interest Law were repeatedly violated — specifically with regard to financial management of the school.”

For example, the transfer of $81,000 worth of funds from Shaung Wen’s Parent Association to the Shuang Wen Academy Network, the school’s after-school program, went through without the necessary approval of the Parent Association. Certain monies were also improperly deposited in the school’s general school funds account, and there was a lack of sufficient documentation for the school’s collection of grant money, according to the report.

“The S.C.I. report finds that grants of $10,000 or more were obtained without reporting to or processing through D.O.E.,” Mittenthal said. “This constitutes a serious violation of [the Standard Operations Procedures Manual] protocol, which says that all gifts exceeding $1,000 and all grants must be reported to D.O.E.’s senior grants officer.”

Despite findings of certain improper activity, Shuang Wen parent Vincent Wong and others deemed the S.C.I. report to be a “positive.”

“We’ve been maintaining all along that there’s no deficiency, no missing money and no financial wrongdoing at all,” said Wong. “In light of this report, we continue to demand the release of the [Parent Association] funds.”

D.O.E., however, claims it will not authorize the use of the funds, which were frozen earlier this year, until all investigations conclude.

Wong, who has two children enrolled in the school, insists that the P.A. hasn’t tried to “hide” any prohibited behavior from the city, nor has the P.A. intentionally committed wrongdoings, financial or otherwise.

With respect to the improprieties revealed by S.C.I., Wong said that, in certain cases, such as the transfer of the $81,000, it was incumbent upon D.O.E. to notify the parents that a vote was needed to approve the transfer.

“We’re not trying to circumvent rules or regulations,” noted Wong. “We’re not saying we turned a blind eye… . Once they told us what to do, we did it.”

Meanwhile, Ling Ling Chou, former principal of Shuang Wen who in July was reassigned to D.O.E. administrative duties due to the ongoing investigations, has filed a court motion requesting to join as a plaintiff in the parents’ lawsuit against D.O.E.

Chou’s abrupt removal has harmed Shuang Wen students and parents, according to the motion, which states that “positive and productive practices are now being arbitrarily dismantled without the guidance and involvement of Ling Ling Chou and her teaching and administrative staff.”

“The great success of the student body in achieving the highest ranking in New York City for the last school year is indicative of the strength of the bilingual/bicultural educational methods that have been in place under the leadership of Principal Chou,” the motion papers read.

Federal Judge Richard Holwell is expected to announce a decision on Chou’s motion to intervene in the parents’ lawsuit at a hearing scheduled for next Tues., Dec. 13, at U.S. District Court.

D.O.E. will not consider the possibility of Chou’s reassignment to the school until the department interviews her and the investigations are completed, according to Mittenthal. D.O.E. is expected to interview Chou this week.