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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Hempstead school district unites with drive to rebuild

A sign for Hempstead High School, seen on

A sign for Hempstead High School, seen on Jun. 22, 2013. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

There was a moment last week, near the beginning of a program about restoring excellence and pride to the Hempstead school district, when the audience was confused. We'd risen to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but there was nary a flag in sight.

But then, a very large image of Old Glory flashed onto the projection screen at Hofstra University's Monroe Lecture Center. And for the next few moments, its light, lines and colors, for those standing hand to heart, stood for the real thing.

Could something similar be happening with another image projected last Thursday night? Could the light, lines and colors of a suspension bridge supported by cables dubbed Home, Parents and Community, and meant to signify support for students, coalesce into the real thing?

Maybe, just maybe -- and for the first time in years -- there may be some chance. For one, district residents, who turned out in record numbers for a regular and special school board election, seem to remain energized.

And last week, both the forum at Hofstra and a school board meeting at Hempstead's high school auditorium -- which was moved, at the last minute to the same night -- attracted crowds.

At Hofstra, Roger Tilles, the Long Island representative to the state Board of Regents; Dennis Jones, president of Hempstead's chamber of commerce; the Rev. Reginald Benjamin, representing the faith-based community; Fatima Jeffries, representing the PTA; Gabriela Rodriguez, Hempstead Class of 2009, representing graduates; Elias Mestizo, head of the classroom teachers' union, and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, were among those offering to help build that bridge.

And later, at the high school auditorium, parents aplenty turned out to demand answers about how the Hempstead school board was addressing a critical audit handed down recently by the state comptroller's office. According to the audit, the superintendent received compensation greater than what was agreed to in her contract, and employees who were unqualified still were working, some now under new titles.

One bitterly cold night; two meetings; two crowds -- one pledging needed help, the other rightfully demanding answers. Residents, including Hempstead students, know what's wrong and they want to fix it. That's what seems different in Hempstead this time around; that's what seems to be the rudiments of a strong, new bridge.

"We're here to show that there is a path forward from a patronage-laden system of cronyism to one that will work for students and the community," Weingarten would say later in an interview. "We are here to help."

And Herman Berliner, Hofstra's provost, who was in the audience, said the university stands ready -- as it has for years -- to offer Hempstead expertise and resources from its teaching, business and other schools. Tilles told the audience that a similar partnership had existed years ago between the Westbury school district and LIU Post.

Mestizo, the classroom union president, said he's already speaking to Hofstra and to Tilles to find common ground. And in an interview on Friday, Lamont Johnson, the school board president, said he wanted to sit down with Hofstra, too.

Still, all the outside offers of help in the world won't work unless Hempstead residents stay energized, keep attending school board meetings, keep demanding answers for the shenanigans of the sort uncovered by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli -- even as residents await the results of an ongoing Nassau district attorney's office investigation after a disputed school board election in May.

For Hempstead, there must be more than talk about excellence; there must be an action plan, a transparent way to move forward. That's the challenge, and energized residents working together and in collaboration with others must keep pushing to get it done.

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