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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

14 years of failed promises to Hempstead’s kids

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker at a special meeting

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker at a special meeting Tuesday evening, Jan 9, 2018, the day after the release of a special adviser's report that faults district's leadership and after the superintendent's "open letter" of appeal to the community. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

One month after writing a letter to a state official describing the Hempstead school district as a “dysfunctional operation” riddled with patronage and cronyism — where board members and school officials used lawsuits as weapons to discredit each other — the superintendent was booted from his post.

That was in 2004, after former Superintendent Nathaniel Clay — who later would be reinstated — called on New York State to intervene in district affairs. And to do so swiftly.

The state’s response was to request an investigation into the school board and district finances. But, as a Sunday report in Newsday detailed, progress since then has been close to nil.

Meanwhile, here we go again, with another Hempstead superintendent, Shimon Waronker, writing an email in December, to the district’s school board members. Waronker told them he’d gone to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies because “no corrective action has taken place” on “suspected illegal financial activity.”

By January, Waronker was outta there — on administrative leave with pay and barred from entering district premises.

Last week, he filed a federal lawsuit seeking reinstatement. The school district filed its response Monday and a hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court in Central Islip Tuesday afternoon.

In a declaration accompanying his civil suit, Waronker used the word “corruption” five times. The complaint itself detailed several allegations about district operations.

Among them were hiring practices “best encapsulated by the terms ‘patronage’ and ‘nepotism;’” payroll records from unspecified past years indicating “295 payroll distributions to 129 individuals who were not active employees at Hempstead at the time of payroll distribution”; and 500 district employees paid as vendors between 2013 and last year.

According to the lawsuit, preliminary results of a forensic audit of district finances, “revealed disturbing yet astounding facts about the issues of financial mismanagement and a clear absence of fiscal controls in the past.”

While the details are new, the allegations of serious fiscal mismanagement reach back to Clay’s assertions in 2004 — which ultimately were detailed in reports by the state Education Department, and the state Comptroller’s office.

For the moment the district’s board is indicating a willingness to implement a correction plan mandated by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. That came after an extraordinary series of private, individual meetings between each school board member and Elia and Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, asked about the latest brouhaha in the district, said last week, “If you don’t have a real, credible, immediate plan for correction, then the state should come in and take over the school.”

During a review of district operations, according to Waronker’s declaration, he talked to more than 200 middle and high school teachers about their concerns. “Academically, what I found was something I had never seen in my life before in any academic institution,” according to court papers.

In middle school, students were promoted, even if they failed all of their classes. In high school, students were placed in Honors English — based on whether they took algebra in middle school. As for math, students who failed algebra were then placed in geometry — and those who failed geometry went on to be placed in trigonometry.

It seems a system rigged to frustrate and fail Hempstead’s children, their teachers and their parents.

Isn’t 14 years enough?

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