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DOE's public affairs director leaving to teach in Central America

Lenny Speiller, the education department’s head of public affairs whose stint was checkered by a lobbying incident that got him into trouble with city investigators, is making an unusual career move. He’s moving to Honduras to become a teacher.

Speiller’s exit is part of a restructuring within the Department of Education’s communication and legislative offices meant to improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public, Chief Operating Officer Veronica Conforme told staff in an email this week.

Speiller’s role in charge of public affairs was to work with elected officials and community-based organizations on DOE initiatives and to curry support for the department’s legislative goals. Under a four-office merger, public affairs will be folded into the External Affairs office. The other public-facing shops getting absorbed are: Communications, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor’s Strategic Communications Group (a spokeswoman said the last one helps Dennis Walcott read and respond to emails from the public).

Jessica Scaperotti, a former Cuomo and Bloomberg aide who joined the department in April, will over see the new streamlined office. Elizabeth Rose, a public affairs official, will temporarily fill in for Speiller while a permanent replacement is found.

In announcing Speiller’s departure to staff, Conforme didn’t offer much of a reflection on his two-and-a-half year tenure, which was filled with a busy legislative agenda. During his time, Speiller worked on the successful push to raise the state’s cap on charter schools and on the less-successful effort to reform teacher tenure laws.

But it was his work on the issue of seniority-based layoff laws that got him into trouble.

In October, Richard Condon, the Special Commissioner of Investigation, found that Speiller broke the law when he urged school employees to engage in political lobbying on the issue.

Here’s what we wrote about the investigation in October:

During “Lobby Week” in March, Lenny Speiller, executive director of the DOE’s Office of Public Affairs, inserted language into an email to parent coordinators asking them to share a petition calling on lawmakers to do away with seniority layoff rules for teachers, investigators concluded. Mayor Bloomberg was pushing the policy change heavily at the time. But the state constitution prohibits public employees from engaging in private political lobbying.

Speiller was reprimanded by Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who ordered him to take ethics training classes. His personnel file also received a letter noting the incident.

The report said that Speiller worked closely on the issue with his predecessor, Micah Lasher, who was Bloomberg’s top Albany lobbyist at the time. Speiller wrote an email to Lasher asking for advice on the political language used in the petition. Lasher didn’t response and was not included in Condon’s investigation.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, who regularly butts heads with the department as chair of the education committee, called Speiller, “a very cordial, diplomatic and level-headed person” to work with.

Jackson also said that the lobbying impropriety shouldn’t be held against him.

“I don’t think he did it on his own,” Jackson said. “If he was told that that’s what he had to do, he either had to do it or he wouldn’t have his job.”

Lasher left the Bloomberg administration in April to take a job running the New York office of Michelle Rhee’s political action committee StudentsFirstNY.

Shortly after, Speiller spoke to Walcott about leaving, Scapperotti said in an email.

“Two months ago, Lenny spoke to the Chancellor about an opportunity for he and his wife to teach at a developing school in Honduras,” Scapperotti wrote.

Speiller, whose last day of work is today, declined to comment through Scaperotti.

Speiller is the second top communications official to leave the DOE this year and there has been high turnover within the communications department in recent months. Communications director Natalie Ravitz left in January, which was followed by the departure of three other press officers.

Scapperotti said the reshufflng will improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public.

“This was done so we can better keep parents, teachers and the general public informed about DOE programs and initiatives,” she said.

Below is Conforme’s letter to DOE staff.

Dear Colleagues,

I want to share some exciting news about our external communications and government affairs team and a merger that will enable us to have a more streamlined approach in communicating with our stakeholders. To reflect the already close working relationships shared among the staffers in Communications, Public Affairs, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor’s Strategic Communications Group, we have merged these teams into one External Affairs Office under the leadership of Jessica Scaperotti.

As many of you already know, Thursday is Lenny Speiller’s last day. After serving as our Director of Public Affairs for two and a half years, he will be leaving New York City to take a teaching position in Honduras. While we continue the search for his replacement, Elizabeth Rose will manage day-to-day operations, reporting to Jenny Sobelman, Chief of Staff for External Affairs.

I appreciate your cooperation as we move forward with this exciting change, and am very much looking forward to the work ahead.

Thank you.

Veronica

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