More than 150 community activists, parents, students and education officials debated ways to improve the Hempstead school district during a heated forum Tuesday night.
Civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington of Hempstead and Adelphi University professor Sergio Argueta spoke at the packed meeting at the Hempstead public library about the school district's poor academic performance, low graduation and high dropout rates, questionable spending and revolving door of leadership.
"We're not here to point the finger, but we're here to shine light," said Argueta, director of Adelphi's undergraduate social work program and a former Hempstead district student.
Current and former Hempstead school board members at the meeting objected to Brewington's and Argueta's assertions of impropriety. In the audience were Superintendent Susan Johnson, school board president Betty Cross and board member Lamont Johnson.
"There are three sides to every story," said Cross, who shouted from the audience. "Anybody can get up and point the finger. We need to sit down and come together and work together."
The meeting was the first of three workshops organized by the New York Civil Liberties Union's Nassau Chapter and several community groups. The others will be held at the library on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and April 3 at 6:30 p.m.
The district that serves about 6,000 students has a $179 million budget. The dropout rate for Hempstead High School was 18 percent and the graduation rate was 40.7 percent in 2012. The district has a history of not meeting state standards in English and Math, Brewington and Argueta said.
Meanwhile, the number of professional staff, such as social workers, fell from 107 in 2008-09 to 37 in 2010-11, Argueta said.
"If the supports mechanism that serve as safety nets for the children are not necessarily there, there is a cocktail for danger," Brewington said.
Other concerns in the school district include violence and strained racial relationships.
"The next adult that tells me there is no racial tension in this school district, you are either blind or straight-up ignorant," Argueta said.
Among the potential solutions discussed were a need for cultural diversity education and more Spanish-speaking staff.
"If they translate, the students would learn more," said Jorge Eduardo Guerrero, 10, a fourth-grader at Jackson Annex School in front of 50 people."We need more Spanish speakers."
Some attendees also supported the idea of term limits for board members.
But setting term limits by the board or residents is not possible, said Barbara Bradley, spokeswoman for the New York State School Boards Association.