Shifting leadership and political wrangling, often driven by changes in school board control, have been a constant in the Hempstead school district.
The district is Nassau County’s largest K-12 system in terms of enrollment, with about 8,000 students. It has consistently been flagged by the state Education Department for low academic performance.
Here is a timeline of significant events in recent years:
Nov. 2: Patricia Garcia, schools chief since 2009 and the district’s first Latino superintendent, resigns. She gets a payout of nearly $320,000 under a separation agreement. In the seventh change of superintendents in eight years, the board chooses Susan Johnson, a two-time former Hempstead schools chief who unsuccessfully sued the district over her firing in 2005.
May 23: The five-member school board unanimously approves Johnson’s contract, retroactive to November and extending through June 30, 2016. Her base salary is $250,000, to increase to $265,000 over the contract’s term, with additional benefits such as health and dental insurance and a district vehicle.
June 28: Newsday reports the Hempstead district has systematically changed some students’ failing final course grades into passing grades, spurring investigation. A district deputy superintendent says the grade-changing was a long-term policy designed to prevent confrontations between teachers, parents and students and to better students’ chances of getting into college.
Aug. 22: The state Education Department places Hempstead High School on its “priority” list, the lowest academic rung, meaning it ranks among the lowest 5 percent of schools statewide.
May 20: Board president and power broker Betty Cross wins re-election narrowly over challenger Maribel Touré, a local activist. The result is challenged based on disputed absentee ballots and allegations of voter coercion, and an appeal is filed with the state education commissioner.
July 1: The school board elects trustee LaMont Johnson as president, ousting Cross from the position. Johnson, a former officer with the NYPD and Hempstead Village police, is elected to the board in May 2013. (He is not related to Susan Johnson.)
July 18: Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. orders Cross to step down from the board while he investigates allegations of voter fraud and misuse of absentee ballots in the May election. The next month, King nullifies the May vote and orders a special election in October.
Oct. 16: King, in a highly unusual action, orders immediate investigation of the district’s enrollment procedures, two days after community members’ allegations that the district had turned away more than 30 Latino students from school for weeks. The order centers on children who are recent immigrants and who in some cases entered the country illegally as unaccompanied minors.
Oct. 29: Touré wins a decisive victory over Cross in the state-ordered special election, overseen by monitors from the state attorney general’s Civil Rights Bureau.
Nov. 21: School board president Johnson says trustees will conduct a national search for a potential replacement for Superintendent Susan Johnson, whose contract expires June 30, 2016.
Dec. 29: A state audit finds the district awarded $1.3 million in contracts without going through the bidding process, overpaid Superintendent Susan Johnson by $32,769 for the 2012-13 school year, routinely held closed-door meetings to the exclusion of the public and failed to screen and provide services for some special-needs children.
Feb. 17: The state Education Department orders the district to immediately enroll immigrant children and discontinue the use of wait-lists — or says it will remove the district’s superintendent and board members. The ultimatum stemmed from the agency’s monthslong joint investigation with the state attorney general’s office into Hempstead’s enrollment procedures.
May 20: Confusion reigns after the election for school board, with the board initially certifying the results and less than two hours later voting not to “accept, approve or certify” the results. The next month, the board conceded it had acted outside of its authority in attempting to decertify the election results. Ultimately, the top two vote-getters — Touré and newcomer Gwendolyn Jackson — are sworn in, in July.
July 16: The state Education Department, under a new state law, announces its first major drive to turn around failing schools in more than a decade. As part of this, Hempstead High School is identified as “persistently struggling” and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School as “struggling,” with each given requirements and deadlines to meet federal and state standards — or face potential takeover by an outside manager.
Jan. 7: The school board, with the district’s contract with Superintendent Susan Johnson to expire at the end of June, interviews candidates for schools chief behind closed doors. At the time, the panel is down to four members because of trustee Ricky Cooke Sr.’s resignation.
Jan. 28: The Hempstead district is identified as the most fiscally stressed school system in New York in a report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The agency’s statistical yardsticks include a $15.1-million general-fund operating deficit in the 2014-15 school year. Other indicators used for measurement are low reserve-fund balance, low liquidity and short-term debt.
March 4: David Gates is appointed as a school board trustee by the Nassau BOCES superintendent to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Cooke, who was the top vote-getter in the May 2014 board election.
May 17: Community activist Melissa Figueroa is elected to the school board to fill the remaining term of Cooke. As she is allied with Touré and Jackson, the balance of power on the panel shifts. Johnson, the current board president, wins re-election. Gates — appointed in March — is elected to a full three-year term.
May 20: The school board, in an early-morning vote after meeting for hours behind closed doors, votes to seek a replacement for Superintendent Susan Johnson. The vote is among the first significant actions taken by trustees after the board’s balance of power changed as a result of the election.
June 29: Retired educator Fadhilika Atiba-Weza is named interim superintendent, to start July 1, in late-night action by the school board after the panel added a surprise resolution to make the appointment. He replaces Susan Johnson, whose contract is to expire on June 30. The contract for Atiba-Weza, who led the school system in upstate Troy and had superintendent stints in the Central Islip and Roosevelt districts, runs until June 30, 2017.
Oct. 21: The school board unanimously approves a $265,000 annual salary for Atiba-Weza after the state Education Department said it would not approve his request to simultaneously receive pension payments and a $215,000 annual salary.
Jan. 25: State Comptroller DiNapoli, in his annual report on schools’ financial conditions, says the Hempstead and Wyandanch systems on the Island face the highest degree of fiscal stress encountered by any non-urban districts in the state. The two systems are rated as being in “significant stress,” the category of greatest difficulty.
April 27: The school board votes 3-2 to hire Shimon Waronker as its new superintendent under a four-year contract, with details pending negotiations. A Harvard-educated proponent of reforming traditional models of education, Waronker is known for turning around dangerous and struggling public schools in New York City. At the time of the vote, he is head of school for The Jewish Academy, a private institution in Commack, and oversaw three city schools. Voting for Waronker’s hiring are Touré, Figueroa and Jackson, and voting against are Gates and Johnson.
May 12: The school board votes 3-2 to approve Waronker’s contract, which runs from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2021, with an annual base salary of $265,000 and other benefits. Voting for the contract are Touré, Figueroa and Jackson, and voting against are Gates and Johnson. The action comes five days before the school board elections, in which Figueroa faces challengers.
May 17: Randy Stith wins election to the board, beating Figueroa and candidate Deborah DeLong. As an ally of Gates and Johnson, Stith’s election portends another shift in the panel’s balance of power. He is to be seated at the board’s reorganization meeting in early July.
June 2: Waronker starts work as superintendent a month before the July 1 start date in his contract — a decision made by a 3-2 vote at a school board special meeting. Touré, Figueroa and Jackson vote to approve; Gates and Johnson vote against. The board also acted to let go Atiba-Weza, the interim superintendent whose contract is scheduled to end June 30.
June 8: At a tumultuous meeting, the panel’s three-member majority votes to seek legal removal of Johnson from the panel. A board resolution charges he violated confidentiality rules by disclosing a list of district employees’ names and home addresses. The list allegedly was used by Johnson’s political supporters in the school board election in which Stith defeated Figueroa. Johnson does not comment after the meeting.
June 27: The school board votes to enter into a $450,000 contract with the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit Waronker founded that emphasizes team teaching, open classrooms, merit pay for teachers and higher salaries. The panel also approves hiring four master teachers at annual salaries of $135,000 each. The votes on both actions are 3-1, with Touré, Figueroa and Jackson in favor and Gates opposed. Johnson is not present.
June 30: The school board — following a series of closed-door legal hearings since its June 8 action — votes 3-1 to remove Johnson as trustee after finding he had disclosed the names and addresses of district employees in violation of district policy. Throughout the process, Johnson has said he is falsely accused, calling the closed hearings a “witch hunt,” “kangaroo court” and “public assassination of my character.” Touré, Figueroa and Jackson vote for Johnson’s removal and Gates votes against. Johnson is not present; his lawyer said he was hospitalized for treatment of a heart condition. The panel appoints Hempstead resident Mary Crosson to the seat.
July 5: At the school board’s annual reorganization meeting, Stith and Crosson are sworn in and seated for their first meeting on the panel. Stith and Gates challenge Crosson’s legitimacy to serve and whether she can cast votes on agenda items. Waronker gives a presentation on the New American Initiative.
Sept. 14: State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia appoints veteran administrator Jack Bierwirth as a “distinguished educator” for the Hempstead district in a highly unusual move to bolster efforts to turn around the system. Bierwirth, who answers to the Education Department, is empowered to develop and roll out improvement plans for student achievement and conduct an intensive review of district systems, structures and operations. He is only the second person tapped for such a position under a 2011 state regulation.
Nov. 27: Elia acts on Johnson’s appeal of his removal from the board, ordering his immediate reinstatement. In her decision, the commissioner says the board did not show how Johnson secured any data and failed to provide him “with a full and fair opportunity to refute such charges before his removal.” Elia annuls the board resolution appointing Crosson to Johnson’s seat.
Nov. 29: Johnson, Gates and Stith — the new school board majority — pledge at an emergency board meeting to take a more inclusionary approach and decide against acting on a variety of district matters until all five members are present. Touré and Jackson are not present.
Dec. 7: The board rejects a proposal — 3-2, under the new majority — to hold a February referendum on a $46.8 million bond issue aimed at ending overcrowding and the use of aging portable classrooms. The new majority votes against the plan, which includes rebuilding the district’s long-shuttered Marguerite G. Rhodes School.