Gibran founder asks to run school

Debbie Almontaser — Khalil Gibran Academy founder.
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

The founder and former principal of the city’s first Arabic language and culture academy — who resigned over her failure to immediately condemn a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Intifada NYC” — will not get her job back, the Department of Education said this week.

Debbie Almontaser, who created the Khalil Gibran International Academy, said on Tuesday that she had submitted her application for the position of principal, which was filled on an interim basis following her resignation.

At a press conference — where she read a prepared statement and refused to answer questions — Almontaser’s attorney said she might sue.

But her job application is going straight into the circular file, an Education official said.

“In August, Ms. Almontaser said she resigned as principal … to protect the stability of the school and give it ‘the full opportunity to flourish,’” said Education spokesman David Cantor. “The Chancellor agreed with her decision, accepted her resignation, and now considers the matter closed.”

Before her resignation, Almontaser ignited a firestorm after telling the New York Post that the word “intifada” — well known to mean the Palestinian uprising against Israel — literally means “shaking off.”

“That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic,” she said. “I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.”

The comment earned Almontaser intense criticism — and put an unwanted spotlight on the school, one of dozens of foreign-language academies in the city.

In her statement on Tuesday, Almontaser claimed the city threatened to kill the Gibran school, which she had worked on for two years, unless she stepped down.

“They should have said that the attacks upon me were utterly baseless,” said Almontaser. “Instead, they forced me to issue an apology. And when the storm of hate continued, they forced me to resign.” (Read the full text of her statement.)

The “Intifada NYC” T-shirts were made by a women’s arts organization that leased office space from a group on whose board Almontaser sits.

Almontaser eventually issued a more explicit condemnation of the T-shirt, but not before the teachers union and newspaper columnists blasted her for her remarks. Within days, she resigned.

In her statement on Tuesday, Almonstaser said that “because the T-shirts had nothing to do with me or [the school], I saw no reason to discuss the issue with the media. I agreed to an interview with a reporter from the Post at the [Department’s] insistence.”

As a result, her coming lawsuit will claim that her forced resignation violated Almontaser’s First Amendment rights, her lawyer said.

The Department of Education’s Cantor countered that the agency would fight such a suit. “Ms. Almontaser was never forced to speak to reporters, make statements, or otherwise act against her will,” Cantor said.

After a controversy surrounding the school’s initial placement inside Park Slope’s PS 282, it was relocated to a Boerum Hill building that already housed a middle school and high school. The city appeased skeptical parents there with promises of long-needed capital improvements to the building.

The school’s three sixth-grade classes began without incident in September. Eventually, the school, which will encompass grades six 12, will get its own building, Education officials said.

Meanwhile, Almontaser continues to earn about $120,000 a year, while she works on curriculum development at the Department of Education’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters near City Hall.

Twenty-five educators have applied for Almontaser’s old job, which has been filled in the interim by Danielle Salzberg, a Jewish teacher who does not speak Arabic.

Salzberg’s appointment was itself controversial, prompting former Mayor Ed Koch to call it akin to “spitting in [the] eye” of New York’s Arab-American population.

Education officials said that it will take at least a month for the city to find a permanent principal. It’s unclear whether Salzberg, a veteran Department of Education official, has also applied.

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