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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Yawning divide on Hempstead school board

Hempstead School Board trustee LaMont Johnson, right, discusses

Hempstead School Board trustee LaMont Johnson, right, discusses the district's issues with acting superintendent Regina Armstrong, at a special meeting, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Hempstead school board, to its credit, moved quickly and unanimously to begin addressing concerns raised in an independent assessment of district operations, according to an update given state officials last week.

But the board’s rare show of unity in supporting action to address recommendations in a report by Jack Bierwirth — appointed as a New York State Distinguished Educator to advise Hempstead — seems to have ended there.

In a followup last week to his report, Bierwirth noted that little had changed with the district’s governing body.

“The board remains extraordinarily deeply divided,” Bierworth wrote. “The vote to support the recommendations was unanimous, but little else of consequence has been.”

Some of that division was on display last week in U.S. District Court in Central Islip during a hearing on a move by suspended Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker to return to his job.

At one point, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith, two of the three-member board majority who’d voted to suspend Waronker pending results of an investigation, sat on the left side of the courtroom, in rows behind the district’s two lawyers. Gwendolyn Jackson, of the two-member board minority, sat behind Waronker and his attorney, Frederick Brewington, across the aisle.

The sides, while in the courtroom at least, did not talk to each other. And when Johnson was asked about the proceedings, he offered a one-sentence response.

“Everything Fred Brewington says, is a lie,” Johnson said,

During the proceedings, Brewington had a lot to say in arguing for a temporary restraining order to allow Waronker, who has been barred from district premises, to come back.

Brewington said the superintendent — who is receiving full pay while a board-appointed acting superintendent runs the district — had been harmed by the board’s actions. And that the board, in suspending Waronker, deviated from the terms of Waronker’s contract.

But first, Brewington had to argue against a move by district lawyer Jonathan Scher to have Brewington removed from the case because of conversations Brewington had with Maribel Touré and Jackson, the board’s president and vice president.

Brewington said they had not retained him as an attorney, and that he had suggested they seek counsel elsewhere after their election to the board.

Judge Denis Hurley ultimately decided that Brewington could stay on.

During the hearing, the school district — represented by Scher and a second attorney specializing in labor matters — said there had been no harm to Waronker since he still received his salary. In addition, they said his suspension had been proper and necessary to avoid the potential of interference in several investigations.

At one point, Hurley weighed in on Hempstead’s troubles. “This school district has been a disaster for many years,” he said, within earshot of all sides, citing low graduation rates and school dropouts. “It is a very complicated issue.”

As for governance, the board on Monday had the first in a series of suggested sessions that should help the board work, and work together on issues.

Whether there’s progress, presumably, will be addressed in Bierwirth’s next update.

Waronker’s court hearing is slated to continue Tuesday at 2 p.m.

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