Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed bills Wednesday designed to put the Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts — both battling low graduation rates and financial mismanagement — under the oversight of state-appointed monitors.
Cuomo's signature is the first step toward the establishment of the monitors, but agreed-upon amendments to the two bills are still working their way through the State Legislature. Lawmakers are expected to soon approve both, which call for one monitor in each district.
The amendments also give greater authority to the state commissioner of education, who would approve the Hempstead and Wyandanch districts' academic and financial plans as well as appoint the monitors.
“State intervention into the decision-making process of independently elected, local school districts should be seen as an extraordinary remedy,” Cuomo wrote in a memorandum about the bills. The legislature passed both in June.
Critics of previous versions of the bills raised concerns that the state-appointed monitors would have had unfettered control over the districts' school boards.
In the memorandum, Cuomo said the amendments will give parents and residents more ability to weigh in on the districts' decisions through required public hearings in each district.
“These agreements," the governor said, "will bring these bills into conformity with what is best for students and residents of each school district, will give the public a voice into the process, and will ensure that the Commissioner who, by law, enforces all general and special laws relating to the educational system … remains vested and responsible for the outcomes of the students in each of these communities.”
Representatives of the Hempstead school district could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Nathan Jackson, a spokesman with the Wyandanch Union Free School District, said district officials are still reviewing proposed changes that will be discussed at a board meeting Thursday night.
“We’ll have a response at that time,” Jackson said.
The amended bills include provisions such as authorizing the Wyandanch district to issue up to $3.1 million in bonds; requiring the monitor to attend school board meetings, including executive sessions; requiring the monitor to review all budgets and submit them annually to the commissioner of education for approval, and giving the monitor the ability to disapprove travel outside of the state for board members.
The bills also call for the board of education and monitor to develop financial and academic plans by Nov. 1 and schedule public hearings.
Hempstead and Wyandanch have long dealt with staff cuts because of budget woes. The districts are the poorest on Long Island in terms of taxable property values and family incomes. Both have consistently struggled with low graduation rates.
Long Island’s high schools had a graduation rate of about 89.1% in 2019, according to data from the New York State Education Department. During that time, Hempstead recorded a graduation rate of about 57%, while Wyandanch’s was about 44%, the data showed.
For two years, Hempstead was overseen by state-appointed "distinguished educator" Jack Bierwirth, a former superintendent with years of experience in school administration. He left the position in 2019.
Bierwirth produced a series of reports crediting the district for "substantial progress," including improved student state test scores and graduation rates, more accurate budget practices, and addressing long-standing issues with facilities. But he has also criticized the school board for inconsistent governance, poor academic performance and accounting irregularities.