State denies waiver for Hempstead school chief

Superintendent Susan Johnson addresses the school board during Superintendent Susan Johnson addresses the school board during a meeting at the Hempstead School Board. (July 12, 2005) Photo Credit: Paul J. Bereswill

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The state Education Department has denied a request by the Hempstead school district for a waiver for new Superintendent Susan Johnson -- part of the process required by law to employ an early retiree.

Johnson, 60, who returned to the position she held twice previously after former Superintendent Patricia Garcia abruptly departed in November, is drawing a $100,000-plus state pension and needs a state waiver to be paid more than $30,000 because she is younger than 65. Johnson's agreement with the district called for her to make $210,000 through June 30 -- less than seven months.

The waiver request "is denied, effective immediately," Ann Jasinski, assistant director of the education department's Office of Teaching, wrote in a letter sent yesterday to the Hempstead district.

The district's Carle Place-based attorney, Jonathan Scher, declined to comment. Johnson did not return calls seeking comment.

"We will take care of it, it is going to get solved," board of education president Betty Cross said after last night's board meeting.

The low-performing district has been plagued by a revolving door of leadership. Johnson's hiring was Hempstead's seventh change of superintendents in eight years -- instability that has victimized students, said Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents.

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"They need continuity more than anything else and they are certainly not getting it right now," Tilles said. "I hope the Hempstead board will act quickly to get a replacement, assuming she is not going to work under the $30,000 threshold."

Jasinski's letter said the department received a waiver application on Feb. 4 seeking approval to employ Johnson -- nearly two months after Johnson was officially appointed on Dec. 7. Regulations require the retiree and district to file the request "prior to employment, but in no event more than 30 days after employment commences."

The department requested additional documentation to determine if requirements for a waiver under section 211 of Retirement and Social Security Law were met, but did not receive the information requested, Jasinski wrote.

The district failed to provide documentation that it or its board conducted a recruitment search for a candidate that was not retired. The district also was unable to prove there was an "urgent need" for Johnson to hold the position due to an unexpected vacancy. It also failed to describe the selection process used to make the appointment, the letter said.

"They technically don't have a superintendent right now and they fired the last one," Tilles said. "I don't know what they are going to do. They're such a predictably unpredictable board. It's so wrapped up in personalities."

Johnson, who unsuccessfully sued the district over her firing in 2005, was later rehired. She retired from the district in June 2006 and has been drawing a pension benefit of $103,745 a year, according to SeeThroughNY.net, a database project of the Empire Center for New York State Policy.

"She's double-dipping," said Alan Singer, a Hofstra University education professor who focuses on minority school districts. "The question is: Does she have special qualifications that the district should pay her?"

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