On June 5, 2001, in a gesture of goodwill and friendship, schools chancellor Harold O. Levy sent birthday flowers to then newly elected Board of Education president Ninfa Segarra, a tough and frequent critic of the Chancellor. The gift was dispatched from Flowers by Konstantinos, an East Side florist. Included was a brief note: “Happy Birthday, Best Wishes, HOL.”
The tab came to $64.13. Levy billed it to his board-supplied corporate credit card, and when the invoice came in later that month, school board officials paid it.
This month, after two and a half years at the head of the city’s public school system, Levy is leaving office, amid accolades from fans including The New York Times, which last week hailed him for sacrificing his corporate career in order to give back to his city.
But while Levy left a much better paying job with Citigroup to take on the high-profile, high-anxiety post of schools chief in January 2000, he still made sure that he operated in a comfort zone well above that of most New York City public school families, newly obtained records show.
Under his contract with the Board of Education, the Upper West Side native received a $245,000 annual salary plus a $10,000-per-month housing allowance in lieu of living in the Brooklyn brownstone the board had purchased for the use of prior chancellors. (Incoming new schools boss Joel Klein—another corporate defector—is keeping the salary but says he won’t require the housing bonus.) As Newsday pointed out at the time, his $365,000-a-year deal made Levy the state’s highest-paid official.
In addition to his paycheck, Levy also received a less-noticed corporate credit card and expense allowance from the board that, records show, he made good use of at chic restaurants, flower shops, and, in deference to his passion for reading, bookstores.
Credit card records—received unsolicited by the Voice—for 16 of the 31 months that Levy was on the job show the chancellor spent more than $25,000 on dining, travel, and store purchases.
A review of the records show the chancellor was hardly a spendthrift. He traveled to conferences and meetings with education officials in Washington, Florida, and Texas. But his hotel bills appear to have been modest, certainly a far cry from the excesses of former Giuliani housing aide Russell Harding, whose spending is now under investigation by city and federal authorities.
Yet Levy’s records also suggest that the habits of a high-flying corporate executive, sustained by a deep-pockets expense account, were sometimes hard to break.
For example, in a month-long stretch this spring, at the same time that Mayor Bloomberg was negotiating an end to Levy’s tenure as schools boss with Levy’s erstwhile ally, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the chancellor spent almost $1200 eating out at fashionable spots with unnamed companions. He dined four times at Nobu, a fashionable Tribeca eatery, as well as the venerable Palm steakhouse in midtown and I Trulli, an East Side Italian restaurant known for its wines.
Levy also went into corporate-spending mode aboard airplanes. On a June 2000 flight to Columbus, Ohio, the talkative Levy picked up the air-phone and apparently never put it down, logging 15 calls for a cost of $600. On another flight in October of that year he spent $470 in calls.
The chancellor also imported high-priced corporate-style goodwill efforts to the board. On June 26, for instance, Levy had the board pay for a $460 dinner at the Brooklyn Grill on Atlantic Avenue for board labor negotiators. In an even bigger splurge last January, Levy had the city pay for a $704 dinner for himself and 11 staffers at an Italian restaurant, Grappa Café, near Board of Education headquarters in Brooklyn.
In another instance, in the summer of 2000, shortly after being officially named chancellor, Levy bought airline tickets for two separate trips to the Midwest at $1400 and $1300 apiece. Board officials said that nonprofit policy groups had reimbursed the department for the cost of the trips and that school rules prohibit first-class travel.
As for his dining, Levy said all the meals were business related and that dining out at restaurants was simply a part of doing city business. “In order to persuade people of the board’s needs, and trying to get things done, you need to meet with them,” he said. “A large chunk of this job is getting people to do the right thing by the kids. Often I pick up the tab, particularly with city vendors, to avoid the idea that they are inducing me to do something.”
He said that the hefty checks for the two Brooklyn meals were his attempt to reward loyal aides. The January dinner came after the launching of a major recruitment drive for new teachers; the June meal marked the successful completion of contract talks with the teachers union.
“I took them out and I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I still do. They had all worked like dogs.”
Levy was less certain, however, about another reflection of his corporate style, his use of board funds to pay for flowers sent to staff and associates.
Asked about having the board pay for his birthday greetings last year to Segarra, a woman who was essentially his boss, Levy paused before answering. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I have to reflect on that.”
He was also unable to immediately recall to whom he had sent a $108 floral display in March. Altogether, Levy sent flowers nine times using the board’s card, spending a total of $670. One instance included an $85 floral arrangement to an aide, Birdie Blake-Reid, wishing her a speedy recovery, in August 2000. Levy said he couldn’t recall the nature of Blake-Reid’s ailment. Last month, Blake-Reid was fined $8000 by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board for using staff on personal chores.
Levy said that all of his spending was authorized by his contract, which allows him to be reimbursed for “all ordinary and necessary expenditures” made in connection with his official duties. In addition, the contract allocated a special annual allowance of $12,500—drawn from both public and private funds obtained by the board—to cover entertainment. Levy said that of the $37,000 he had been allocated under the contract, he had spent only about $20,000.
“It is my understanding this has been the practice for several past chancellors,” said Levy, although he acknowledged that his predecessor, Rudy Crew, received just a $10,000 allowance. Levy said he couldn’t recall if he had sought a higher expense rate in his negotiations. “I wasn’t focused on that,” he said.
The records show, however, that the outgoing chancellor’s biggest indulgence was a particularly benign one for an educator—bookstores. Levy racked up more than $3500 in purchases, ranging from Labyrinth Books, an academic and history-oriented shop near Columbia University and Levy’s apartment, to almost weekly visits to Barnes & Noble and Borders chain stores.
“I think it is important to stay up on the literature,” he said. “It is important to push books on people; it is a way to get people thinking.”
In one instance, Levy said, he had ordered copies of education critic Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities for each of the board’s 32 district superintendents. “I thought it was important to acquaint people with it,” he said. He said any books bought for his personal use would be left behind for the board’s library.
Asked why he had used the schools’ credit card to spend $91 at Altitunes, an airport music shop, Levy groaned. “OK, I remember this one. Here goes,” he said. “One of my colleagues was getting at me that I didn’t know the music of the kids in the schools. I was going on a trip somewhere, and I said, ‘I ought to get some of this,’ so I did.” The lesson didn’t take, however. Levy said he couldn’t recall the artists he listened to.