Nassau BOCES Superintendent Robert Dillon on Friday appointed the Rev. David B. Gates to the vacancy on the Hempstead school board — an action that brings the panel to its full five members.
Gates was sworn in Friday afternoon and attended his first meeting as trustee at a special afternoon session in the superintendent’s office on Peninsula Boulevard.
Gates, a Hempstead High School graduate who is senior pastor of Miracle Christian Center, was an unsuccessful candidate for the board last year and in 2014. Last year, he ran as a team with then-incumbent Shelley Brazley.
He fills the vacancy left by the October resignation of Ricky Cooke Sr., who was the top vote-getter in the May 2014 election.
The seat for the time remaining on Cooke’s three-year term will be up for election on May 17, the day voters statewide go to the polls to decide on district budgets and board candidates. Prospective candidates have until April 18 to file their petitions with district clerks.
Board president LaMont Johnson, in introducing Gates to the board at the special meeting, said he is “happy with the appointment.”
Gates told the other board members he is “excited about the opportunity” and looks forward to working with them.
“I have motive number one, children first,” Gates said. “I’m a product of this district. I’m a proud [alumnus] of the district ... I am still a believer that Hempstead is worth fighting for.”
Dillon, like other BOCES superintendents across the state, serves as a regional representative of the state Education Department, as well as chief administrator of his own education agency. He said he is empowered under state law to fill vacancies in local districts after 90 days if a slot remains vacant and the board has not scheduled a special election.
Dillon said Friday that he had made the decision to fill the vacant seat.
“If there’s a 2-to-2 vote deadlock, now they’ll be able to move forward,” he said, referring to the fact that Gates’ appointment brings the total number of board members to five.
The district had about 7,400 students in 2014-15, the latest figures on the state Education Department’s website.
Dillon said Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia approved of the appointment, though she is not required to authorize such actions.
The state has a special interest in the district, because Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School — schools that have failed to meet academic benchmarks — currently are being run by Superintendent Susan Johnson under the state’s receivership law. The superintendent is not related to the board president.
The district also faces severe financial troubles.
Hempstead was found to be the most financially stressed school system in the state, with a $15.1 million general-fund operating deficit last year, according to a January report from the state comptroller’s office.
On Feb. 25, at the school board’s meeting, the district’s external auditor warned that the system has spent $8.6 million more than taxpayers authorized last year and is $2 million in the hole this year.
“As an outsider looking in . . . I certainly have concerns where we stand now in terms of 2016,” auditor Michael E. Nawrocki said during a presentation to trustees. “You don’t have any fund balance, so you are really operating hand to mouth.”
Gates, in information given to Newsday last spring for the 2015 School Voters Guide, said he was director of government programs for EmblemHealth in Manhattan.
He holds a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and a master’s in religious education and a doctorate in sacred theology from United Christian College in Manhattan.
LaMont Johnson praised Gates as “a very involved community member” known for organizing yearly school supply drives for students in the district.
“He has shown leadership qualities, and I believe he’s a voice of reason,” the board president said.
Gates appeared ready to tackle issues as the board considered a contract to appoint an interim superintendent for business.
He asked questions and held up the vote until he saw the June 30 expiration date on a contract with a limited-liability company named WIMAC, selected for the job. “We need to be specific” with the contract terms, he said.
After the meeting, board member Maribel Touré said she would “work together” with all board members but said the district should have acted sooner on filling the seat.
“We need to get everything straight,” Touré said. “This is the risk we face. If we don’t do it, someone will do it for us.”