Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/09/nyregion/09RESI.html

Top Deputy Resigns Schools Post Over Effort to Get Husband a Job
NY Times
March 9, 2004

Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam, the New York City school system's top instructional leader, resigned yesterday, three days after city investigators issued a report saying she tried to get her husband a job in the schools without the required conflict-of-interest clearance.

The resignation is an embarrassment for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as they seek to overhaul the nation's largest school system. Ms. Lam has been an instrumental force behind many of Mr. Klein's most significant innovations, including new citywide reading and math curriculums, more rigorous instruction for third graders in danger of being left back, and improved programs for non-English-speaking students.

The resignation came after Mr. Bloomberg called a report into Ms. Lam's actions "troubling" and then met with the schools chancellor at City Hall to discuss her fate.

In a statement last night announcing her resignation, Ms. Lam pointedly said that Mr. Klein had been fully informed about her husband's efforts to obtain a job, and that she had been in close contact with the Education Department's top lawyer, Chad Vignola, about the matter. "I was given a green light to proceed," she said.

Ms. Lam said she had been drawn to the deputy chancellor post out of a desire to help New York City's schoolchildren, but she added: "Recognizing that I am a team member, not the team leader, though, this evening I have with sadness given my resignation to Chancellor Klein."

About an hour after Ms. Lam's statement, Mr. Klein issued his own, saying he had asked for her resignation and had appointed Michele Cahill, his senior counselor for education policy, acting deputy chancellor for teaching and learning.

"After much thought and in consultation with the Mayor, I have determined that it is in the best interests of the Department of Education that Diana Lam no longer serve as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning," Mr. Klein said. "I have asked for Ms. Lam's resignation and she has agreed."

Ms. Cahill, 55, joined the Education Department in September 2002 from the Carnegie Corporation, where she had worked closely with the city school system, particularly on efforts to improve high schools.

In 18 months on the job, Ms. Lam, 56, formerly the schools superintendent in Providence, R.I., has been the most controversial figure in the Department of Education, newly remade under Mr. Bloomberg's control.

The new citywide literacy curriculum that she chose drew criticism from President Bush's top adviser on reading education, an embarrassing episode that led Mr. Klein to quickly adopt a stricter phonics component that met Washington's approval.

She also came under fire for remarks criticizing programs for gifted and talented students and stirred controversy over her choices of 10 superintendents to oversee the city's 1,200 schools.

The investigators' report, released Friday by Richard J. Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City schools, concluded Ms. Lam had helped her husband, Peter Plattes, get a $102,000 supervisory job in the Bronx.

After school officials decided it was inappropriate for him to hold that position, the report said, Mr. Plattes got a a teaching position in a small Bronx high school. At no time, the investigators found, did Ms. Lam seek clearance from the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. Although he was briefly hired in both positions, Mr. Plattes never received a paycheck.

The report said that Mr. Vignola, in response to inquiries by reporters, sought to cover up the hiring of Mr. Plattes, by saying that he had been a "volunteer."

Ms. Lam earned $250,000 a year, a salary identical to Chancellor Klein's. The salary, which made them the city's highest paid public officials, was intended to symbolize Ms. Lam's importance as the school system's highest-ranking career educator.

On Friday, several hours after Mr. Condon's report was released, Chancellor Klein issued a statement supporting Ms. Lam, saying, "I have full confidence in Deputy Chancellor Lam's abilities and her continued efforts to provide New York City's 1.1 million public school children with the education that they need and deserve."

But in a sign of how tightly Mr. Bloomberg controls the school system, the mayor gave the first hint of Ms. Lam's departure at news conference yesterday afternoon at City Hall, at which he described Mr. Condon's report as "very troubling."

When a reporter asked the mayor if he had confidence in Ms. Lam, Mr. Bloomberg did not answer, saying instead that he would not comment until after meeting later in the day with Mr. Klein.

But the mayor quickly added that he himself had sought and received the clearance of the city's Conflicts of Interest Board before hiring his daughter Emma and sister, Marjorie Tiven, for city jobs, even though neither receives a city salary.

"I read the Condon report, and there are some things in there that I found very troubling," Mr. Bloomberg said. "The report didn't quite go in the direction that I would have liked."

Ms. Lam's statement gave little hint of the bitterness that she has described to friends in recent days, a feeling that she was betrayed by Mr. Klein and Mr. Vignola and the victim of what one close friend called "a witch-hunt."

Her statement did offer a blunt defense of her actions in regard to her husband. "I would like to set the record straight," Ms. Lam said. "I never asked for special consideration for Peter and on at least three separate occasions I made a point of consulting with general counsel for the New York City Department of Education, Chad Vignola, both in advance of Peter ever applying and once his application had been made."

She continued: " I was given a green light to proceed. I also notified Chancellor Klein when Peter was offered a position of administrator. Chancellor Klein, through his then Chief of Staff, informed me that Peter should only consider being a teacher. Later on, this position was reversed.

Indeed, Mr. Condon's report stated that Chancellor Klein had approved the hiring of Ms. Lam's husband as a regional instruction specialist by Laura Rodriguez, a superintendent in the Bronx.

Jill S. Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said Ms. Lam's resignation would not undo the damage to the school system.

"I think it's unfortunate for the mayor and I think it's unfortunate for Joel Klein that one of their key people on which they pinned so many hopes would have to leave because of at a minimum inappropriate behavior," she said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said the problem went beyond Ms. Lam's own actions.

"The issue here is not whether Diana Lam recommended her husband for a job," Ms. Weingarten said in a statement. "It is that she did not go through the regular process of checks and balances." She added, "Other administrators, fearing for their jobs, did not insist that proper procedures be followed."

Councilwoman Eva S. Moskowitz, the chairwoman of the education committee, said she was most troubled by the cover-up. "I would hope that Klein and Mayor Bloomberg would also focus on who at the D.O.E. wasn't straightforward," she said. "It's one thing to make a mistake,.and another thing to not be able to admit and come clean about what happened."

After the brouhaha over the citywide curriculum, Ms. Lam largely dropped out of the public eye, though she remained crucial to hiring and policy formation.

She was instrumental in developing plans to strengthen the city's programs for non-English speaking students, and even persuaded Mr. Bloomberg to revise his position on the issue, an area of great concern to Hispanic voters and consequently to any elected official.

Some school system insiders regarded Ms. Lam as something of a wild card, a reputation that was cemented three months ago, when she responded to a question at a forum at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University by saying the city planned to "expand the definition of what it means to be gifted and talented."

The remark set off a wave of confusion and outrage among parents whose children are in gifted programs, and prompted Mr. Klein to disavow Ms. Lam's remarks. The chancellor is still regularly asked for assurances that gifted programs will not be dismantled.

Throughout her career, Ms. Lam has attracted both praise and criticism.

Ms. Lam built her reputation as an educator over two decades in the Boston area, where she started as a bilingual teacher in Framingham, Mass., and rose to become superintendent of schools in Chelsea, Mass. Mr. Plattes stayed at home to care for the couple's two children.

She quit the Chelsea job in 1991 to run for mayor of Boston but ended her candidacy three days after announcing it after reports that she had filed late tax returns.

In Providence, Ms. Lam also developed both supporters and detractors. During her time there, almost all of the city's 23 elementary schools improved academically, but middle school scores were mostly stagnant and the teachers' union gave her a vote of no confidence.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company