By Rick Murphy
Springs School principal Eric Casale told Springs School board members a whopper when he tried to explain away a cheating scandal that ended his career in New York City.
Casale was also less than truthful in a letter to the community dated on May 19 in response to allegations published in this newspaper.
Casale claimed he notified his superintendent as soon as allegations of a cheating scandal at his former school surfaced. However, minutes of an investigation by the NYC Board of Education obtained by The Independent and interviews with insiders directly contradict the time line of events he furnished.
Casale was implicated in a cheating scandal when he was principal at PS-91 in the Bronx. He has since been barred from working in the NYC school system after an in depth investigation by the NYC Board of Education in 2005 concluded he repeatedly lied to investigators about his knowledge of a cheating scandal that took place in 2004, covered it up, and destroyed evidence. In fact, testimony gathered by the Chancellor's office of Special Investigations reveals Casale engaged in a lengthy cover-up to keep higher ups from learning about the extent of the scandal.
"A single allegation against me was substantiated by the investigator based largely on the testimony of two staff members: that I had failed to report my knowledge of the testing allegation to the Director of Testing. Of course, I did report it – to my Superintendent of Schools," Casale wrote in his letter, posted on the Springs School website.
However, according to the report, Dorales Ruales, the region One Local Superintendent and Casale's direct superior, testified that she initially was made aware of the allegations not by Casale but by the Chancellor's Strategic Response Group in early March 2005. The Chancellor's office had received two complaints about cheating at PS-91. Ruales was instructed by her superior to go to Casale and "ascertain information."
Staffers and parents at the school told investigators they went outside the PS-91 chain of command because the cheating scandal was being squashed in house. The complaints reached the Board of Education, the Chancellor's Office and even the mayor's office.
Casale and the teacher accused of giving test answers on state-mandated math tests to students, Barbara Lee, "provided written statements denying the allegations of test tampering," Ruales told investigators.
Casale, although he told Springs School Board members that he contacted his superintendent about the cheating allegations, told a different tale to city investigators in February, 2005. "Mr. Casale stated Mrs. Ruales informed him of an anonymous letter alleging test cheating."
Interviews with several employees at PS-91 said it was widely known Casale knew of the allegations a year earlier then he claims he did.
Ness Matos, an investigator with the Chancellor's Office of Special Investigations, said although Casale claimed, "no students, staff, or parents complained to him about the test cheating allegation," Casale's testimony was directly refuted by Mary Ann Fisher, a teacher, and Carol Pierce, an Assistant Principal, among others.
As previously reported, Casale, only 31, came to PS-91 with an agenda to raise test scores. Ruales hired him, one source said.
Lee, a math teacher, came on to the school with him and the two were "thick as thieves," one person with intimate knowledge of the situation at the school said.
Casale related that he "faced a great deal of pushback for my initiatives, a sadly common experience in the NYC public schools."
But insiders said Casale favored the younger teachers – that he socialized with them, including nights out at bars, and that it was this type of behavior that rankled the veteran staffers.
Students in a fifth grade math class complained Lee helped some of them by giving them answers to a standardized math test. Two of the students wrote out statements that Lee encouraged them to cheat. Casale tried to get rid of the statements rather than turn them over to superiors, as is required by law, and at one point ordered an underling to destroy them.
Eventually whistleblowers, tiring of Casale's cover-up, sent the statements to the Commissioner of Education and the mayor's office. An investigation was finally opened months after the alleged cheating occurred.
Investigators subsequently questioned several students, and one said Lee assured the class that Casale said it was permissible for Lee to help some of the students with the test.
Fisher administered the test with Lee acting as a proctor, on May 4, 2004. Fischer testified she "observed Mrs. Lee approach two or three students who did not raise their hands for assistance." Fisher said Lee pointed to several answers and the students then changed them.
Fisher notified Shelly Debin, another Assistant Principal, and informed her that she did not want Lee in the classroom for the remaining two days of testing. Lee was reassigned as hall monitor immediately, with Casale's approval.
Pierce testified that Fisher told her of Lee's actions and on May 6, 2004, she reported it to Debin and Casale. Both Debin and Casale denied they were informed about the cheating at that time, and investigators concluded both lied.
There is overwhelming evidence that Casale tried to keep the matter in house and bury the accusations. He had promoted Lee to assistant principal – at a huge salary increase - and the pair had come on the scene together and were friendly.
There were allegations that the process used to promote administrators, called a C-30, was tampered with in Lee's case to assure she would get the position. Carlos Velez, the principal of a neighboring school, was on the committee formed to choose the new assistant principal. He gave Lee a rating of 35, the highest grade given to any of the applicants by any of the seven committee members. Her other grades were, 18,15,20,25,20,15, and 15. Velez testified that Casale asked him to be on the committee.
Nevertheless Conquest Marva was ranked the most qualified candidate ahead of Lee. Casale chose Lee nonetheless, a move that prompted investigators to question him about it.
At this point in late winter, 2005, investigators were bearing down on Casale, and it was clear he was going to face serious charges, serious enough to possibly end his career.
Debin, who according to testimony helped Casale try and cover up the scandal, was disciplined. "It is our recommendation that she is demoted to her last appointed position . . . proceed with charges under Education Law seeking her termination for her failure to report and her attempt to cover up a serious allegation of misconduct." Lee was supended and eventually lost her license to teach as a result of the cheating scandal at PS-91.
"No further action was taken against me, and no charges of 'cover up' or 'destruction of evidence' were alleged or substantiated against me," Casale wrote. "Mr. Casale submitted his resignation effective June 30, 2005. Mr. Casale did not state the reason for his resignation," investigators reported. Casale neglected to mention he was about to face the same fate as Debin – she was disciplined along with Lee in August, 2005, after Casale had left the employ of New York City.
"The Springs Board of Education knew about this before I began working in the district," Casale wrote in his letter to the Springs community.
Insiders in the Bronx said if Casale was indeed vetted by Springs School officials, he likely directed them to speak to Ruales, his friend and ally. Casale claimed he did not know he was barred from working in NYC until The Independent reported on the matter last month.
"He resigned prior to the release of this report but it seems clear he was aware of the cheating allegation, attempted to cover it up, and destroyed evidence," the investigation concluded.
In late April, Springs School officials quietly asked a vice principal, Katherine Byrnes, to resign. The matter was not publicly revealed until parents complained there were no administrators on board at the school – Casale had been taken to the hospital suffering from chest pains on May 3. The scuttlebutt then was that Casale panicked after a single student reported what might be considered an irregularity in testing protocol, afraid the incident would end up dredging up the scandal at PS-91. And it did – an article from the NY Post written in March 2005 fingering Casale surfaced. The story reported Casale would receive a cash stipend if he raised standardized test scores. Casale has not responded to requests for comment.