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Retiring Rockville Centre superintendent chosen as monitor for Hempstead

William Johnson and the Rockville Centre district often

William Johnson and the Rockville Centre district often is cited as a model in its use of college-level International Baccalaureate courses and exams at the high school level. Credit: Danielle Silverman

One of Long Island's leading educational innovators was named Thursday to monitor the academic performance and finances of the troubled Hempstead school district for the next five years, with an eye toward "ensuring stability and a brighter future," state authorities announced. 

William Johnson, who is retiring as superintendent of Rockville Centre schools after 40 years in that system, will take on his Hempstead assignment July 1. Johnson is a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and the Rockville Centre district often is cited as a model in its use of college-level International Baccalaureate courses and exams at the high school level. 

Johnson, in a phone interview, said he welcomed the opportunity to work in the neighboring Hempstead district, noting that it is introducing a baccalaureate program of its own at the middle school level. That program was brought to Hempstead by Jack Bierwirth, a former state adviser to the district.

"I think a number of positive things have been done to improve instructional programs in the district for the last several years, and I look forward to building on those positive changes," Johnson said.

Johnson said his hourly compensation remains to be worked out, but Hempstead board trustee Randy Stith said the annual cost of a monitor is $250,000. About $85,000 of that will come from Albany, the state said.

The state's interim education commissioner, Shannan Tahoe, who appointed Johnson monitor, noted that Hempstead still faces an uphill struggle in educating large numbers of students speaking limited English, despite progress in other areas.

"It's critical that Dr. Johnson will provide help to continue efforts to turn around the dysfunction that has plagued the Hempstead district for years," Tahoe said.

"I don't think anybody could do the job better," said Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state's policymaking Board of Regents. Tilles cited Johnson's past observation that "Hempstead's kids are our kids, and until they succeed, we cannot say that any of us are succeeding." 

Hempstead, which is Nassau County's poorest district in terms of taxable income and property value, faces a financial crisis. Local school officials have said that the system is hemorrhaging money in the form of tuition payments for students fleeing to independent charter schools, and that Hempstead most likely faces staff cuts in order to balance its budget for the 2020-21 school year.

Under law, Johnson is responsible for working with Hempstead's board to develop an academic and financial improvement plan by November. 

While some board trustees chafe at a state requirement that Hempstead helps pay for its monitor, the board's vice president, Carmen Ayala, welcomed Johnson's appointment as "great news for the Hempstead community." 

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