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Ex-Hempstead deputy superintendent files wrongful termination suit

Varleton McDonald alleges the school board's majority targeted him because he disclosed information about "rampant and corrosive corruption, waste, and gross illegalities" in the district.

Varleton McDonald, seen in November 2017, was deputy

Varleton McDonald, seen in November 2017, was deputy superintendent of the Hempstead school district. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Former Hempstead schools Deputy Superintendent Varleton McDonald is suing the district and several members of its board, alleging he was wrongfully terminated after blowing the whistle on corruption in the system.

The civil complaint, filed Oct. 10 in federal court in Central Islip, alleges members of the school board's majority “retaliated” against McDonald and terminated his employment after he disclosed information about “rampant and corrosive corruption, waste, and gross illegalities” in the district. According to the complaint, he spoke with the state Education Department and was questioned by the FBI about issues in the district.

McDonald, terminated Jan. 17, was brought to the district by embattled Superintendent Shimon Waronker, with whom he previously worked in New York City — an association that contributed to his firing, said Mark Goidell, the Garden City-based attorney for McDonald.

Waronker, on paid administrative leave since Jan. 9, also is suing the district regarding his removal.

McDonald's lawsuit names the district and board members David Gates, Randy Stith and LaMont Johnson, who made up the majority when the board voted in favor of terminating his employment.

The lawsuit “has no merit whatsoever," said Jonathan Scher, the Carle Place-based attorney for the district and board members.

“The complaint contained allegations that are wholly fictitious and warrant the board asserting a character claim for defamation,” Scher said. He said making “scandalous accusations in an attempt to try to manufacture a claim is not excusable and establishes the level of maliciousness that exposes a plaintiff to liability for defamation even where the claims are made against a public figure.”

The Scher Law Firm, where Scher is a partner, on Oct. 30 asked permission from the court to file a motion to dismiss. The court has not ruled.

Board members cannot comment on pending litigation, Scher said.

"Everyone likes to sue the Hempstead school district. It seems to be the thing to do," Stith said. "What if we, the district, started to sue those who have taken from the schools, who have taken from the students, and who have taken from the district? Everything will soon come to light."

Gates and Johnson could not be reached for comment.

The board, under a different majority, hired McDonald in a 3-1 vote on Sept. 28, 2017, to "provide instructional and operational support for the persistently struggling schools," with an annual salary of $180,000, according to meeting minutes.

McDonald’s appointment was part of Waronker’s efforts to turn around the district, which has been struggling for decades and criticized by state officials for its low test scores and graduation rates, as well as factionalism among board members. Hempstead is the largest K-12 system in Nassau County.

According to the complaint, McDonald was approached in December 2017 by FBI investigators, with whom he shared information about alleged wrongdoing in the district. McDonald in December also told state Education Department officials and school board members about the findings, according to the complaint.

The Education Department had no comment.

The FBI’s New York office did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.

"The disclosures related again to widespread corruption, significant financial improprieties," Goidell said. "It’s my understanding that while I'm not at liberty right now to discuss the specifics of those matters, it's my understanding that they very well may become the subject of public disclosure in the very near future."

Relations between Waronker, who started in the district on June 2, 2017, began to sour last fall. After a change in its majority, the board on Jan. 9 voted 3-2 to place Waronker on paid leave, appointing longtime Hempstead administrator Regina Armstrong as acting superintendent.

McDonald’s employment was terminated in a 3-2 vote during a Jan. 17 meeting, according to meeting notes. Then-board president Maribel Touré and vice president Gwendolyn Jackson, who made up a minority bloc on the panel, voted against his dismissal.

Touré said the board majority terminated the employment of other administrators brought in under Waronker, so they saw McDonald’s termination coming.

“He’s not the only one talking to the Department of Education,” she said, adding that she, too, has spoken to the department about alleged corruption in the district.

Jackson could not immediately be reached for comment. She and Touré both lost their re-election bids in May.

Scher said he could not comment on the reasoning for McDonald’s termination.

“Mr. McDonald has strayed far from the truth in a certain few of his allegations, and the board will need to decide whether to hold him liable for that with a defamation counterclaim,” Scher said about the accusations. “Certainly, they have a legal basis for pursuing that.”

McDonald’s lawsuit is seeking monetary damages for "wrongful" termination and effects on his reputation, Goidell said, noting that McDonald has not been able to obtain employment.

No dollar amount was specified and no further court appearances have been scheduled, according to court documents.

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