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Top state education department official supports monitoring board for Hempstead

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa on Monday

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa on Monday said the state is still determined to deal with Hempstead's academic weaknesses and other issues. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — New York State’s top educational policymaker on Monday voiced a “strong commitment” to the Hempstead school district, adding that she supported the establishment of a monitoring board for the troubled 7,600-student system.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said there was still a determination to deal with Hempstead’s academic weaknesses and other issues, despite the departure last week of the district’s state-appointed adviser. Jack Bierwirth, who served as a special adviser known as a “distinguished educator,” stepped down at the end of a two-year term and was not replaced.

“I know there’s a strong commitment to support, not only Hempstead, but also Wyandanch and other districts that are struggling,” said Rosa, of the Bronx, who chairs the 17-member Regents board.

Rosa added that she plans to meet with Hempstead representatives later this month. Her remarks about the district were in response to a question raised during a brief news conference, where the chancellor spoke about potential changes in state standards for high school graduation and other topics.

The interim state education commissioner, Beth Berlin, who joined Rosa at the news conference, told one reporter she expected to receive a final report soon from Bierwirth, spelling out his recommendations for Hempstead. Berlin added that she would have more to say about the district’s future once the report is received.

With local schools now entering their second month of classes, both Hempstead and Wyandanch find themselves in political limbo.

Proposed new laws, approved by the State Legislature in June, would establish state monitors to keep tabs on finances and operations in both districts, which are the poorest on Long Island in terms of taxable wealth. Aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have said the bills are under review, but have not indicated whether Cuomo will sign them into law.

Political factions within Hempstead are bitterly split on the monitoring issue. Elected school board trustees have denounced the idea as unnecessarily intrusive, while their opponents have contended that state-appointed watchdogs are essential for rebuilding public trust.

Nicole Epstein, a spokeswoman for Hempstead’s board, said later that, while board trustees opposed the monitoring bill as originally drafted, they look forward to working with the state now in finding "real solutions and real plans that will ensure the district's continued success."

Board members have noted that their district has made some progress recently in raising graduation rates and passing a bond issue for building improvements. Outside experts have responded that such gains are likely to be lost, unless Bierwirth is brought back with stronger regulating powers or a replacement is found.

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, said Monday he joins the chancellor in hoping that the governor signs the monitoring bills. Tilles, who is one of the longest-serving Regents, said he has watched Hempstead struggle for nearly 15 years with problems, which, despite improvements, include the region’s lowest graduation rates.

“I cannot stand by and let generations of children not have the opportunities they need to have a meaningful chance at a successful life,” Tilles said.

As Regents held their monthly meeting at the state Education Department building, about two dozen protesters stood outside in the rain. Demonstrators were mostly parents and others opposed to a new law on school vaccinations. The turnout Monday was far smaller than a rally held here last month.

In mid-June, state lawmakers voted to abolish a religious exemption to the vaccine requirement, following the worst measles outbreak in the nation in 27 years — with many of the cases occurring in New York. Thousands of children whose parents still refuse to have them inoculated have been banned from schools over the past three weeks, first on Long Island and upstate and more recently in New York City.

“It’s kind of a rolling event of kids getting kicked out of school,” said one demonstrator, John Gilmore of Long Beach. He is executive director of the Autism Action Network, an organization supporting students with disabilities and their families.

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