Hempstead school board lays off 59 in secretive vote at lights-out meeting

Teachers and other workers in the Hempstead School District held a rally outside district offices on June 24, 2014, protesting recent layoffs of 47 teachers as well as a $1.5 million allocation for district legal fees. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

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The Hempstead school board has laid off nearly 60 people, including 47 union members, an attorney for the district acknowledged Tuesday.

Austin Graff, the district lawyer, said the cuts were made for financial reasons, and some employees may resume their jobs if money is found in the budget later. The trims included two administrators and 10 teaching assistants, he said.

Graff released specifics about the job cuts after the leader of Hempstead's teacher union said scores of teachers had been laid off.

Calls earlier Tuesday to superintendent Susan Johnson, board president Betty Cross and other board members were not returned.

More than 200 educators rallied Tuesday outside the district's administrative offices on Peninsula Boulevard, protesting both the layoffs and the way in which the board approved them -- by voting for the cuts without explicitly stating what they were for and in a "consent agenda" so those who attended were unaware of the approval at Thursday's board meeting. People who attended that gathering, a raucous event that Cross abruptly adjourned amid crowd protests against the board, said they were not aware the vote took place.

Many were at the meeting to object to Cross' May 20 re-election. Challenger Maribel Touré filed a petition with Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. saying she is the true winner, contending questionable absentee ballots threw the results. The Nassau district attorney's office also is looking into the matter.

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Elias Mestizo, president of the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, said the district sent layoff notices to 47 employees -- including 30 classroom teachers, mostly at the elementary level, 11 reading teachers, three attendance teachers and three guidance counselors.

He said he sent emails to union members Monday night notifying them of the job cuts. The district has a total of 530 teachers, he said.

The possibility of staff trims had been known since late May, when the teachers were given letters stating that their positions could be "excessed," he said.

Among those receiving layoff notices was Juan Carlos Rincon, 39, a special-education teacher who says he often bought his own supplies, including ink and paper. While he faced many challenges this school year -- he went without a teaching aide for several weeks -- he said he adores his job and was thrilled to educate the children of the community's Latino population.

"Those kids are growing because of my hard work," he said.

Nicole Brown, 42 and a mother of four, said she has been a reading teacher for 14 years. She has worked throughout the district, most recently with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Jackson Annex School, improving their reading comprehension, writing and grammar.

"This is my livelihood," the Wyandanch resident said.

Maria Lugo, 37, and a single mother of three from Suffolk County, said she has worked as a reading teacher for eight years.

Lugo said her services are critical for many of the students in the district. Some of her third-graders are two years behind, she said, and at the start of the year, they did not know such simple words as "was," "for" and "from."

"My heart's broken," she said of being laid off.

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