A state-appointed adviser to the Hempstead school district, in his first quarterly report, expresses cautious optimism about prospects for a turnaround of the troubled system but warns of potential risks ahead, including the possibility of incurring “extraordinary” legal expenses.
Jack Bierwirth, a former Herricks school superintendent named to examine the district, notes in the report dated Jan. 25 on Hempstead’s website that the often-divided school board has recently agreed on several key issues.
As an example, Bierwirth states that the board trustees will follow his recommendation to undergo professional training provided by the New York State School Boards Association. The first training session is to begin at 7 p.m. Monday in the district’s main office.
Bierwirth had called for training earlier this month after concluding that the 8,000-student district’s greatest problem was a lack of leadership. This, he said, was demonstrated by squabbles among the school board, which consistently splits 3-2 in votes on crucial questions.
“I remain optimistic about the prospects for significant improvement,” Bierwirth says in the quarterly report.
On a less positive note, Bierwirth notes that the Hempstead board’s majority now is locked in a legal battle with the district’s superintendent, Shimon Waronker, whom it put on administrative leave with pay on Jan. 9.
Waronker, in a lawsuit filed in federal court, contends the action violated his constitutional rights to free speech and due process — a position rejected by the board.
Bierwirth expresses concern that the way Hempstead conducts its affairs “often results in extraordinary legal expenses” — money that he said could be used for students’ benefit.
To underscore the point, the special adviser references an “action plan” that he drew up earlier that cited millions of dollars in fees charged in the past by two law firms recently rehired by the district when its current board majority took control. Those agencies are the Chandler firm, located in Valley Stream, and the Scher firm in Carle Place.
Bierwirth says his primary purpose was not taking the two legal firms to task, because legal costs are determined by decisions taken by district administrations. Rather, he said, the intent was to illustrate the potential high costs of further litigation.
Monte Chandler, founder of the Valley Stream firm, objected to the suggestion that his agency’s costs were high. Chandler added that when his firm first represented Hempstead in 2012, it “inherited” well over 40 cases.
“All that resulted in excessive work, not excessive fees,” he said.
Jonathan Scher, a partner in the Carle Place firm, said that his agency between 2012 and 2016 won about 60 cases on behalf of the Hempstead district, while losing only two. Scher added that the firm also represented the district in 135 negotiating sessions with five employee unions and reached settlements with three of those units.
Scher also said his firm’s fees were offset by money saved by the district in settlement costs. That, Scher said, was during a period when Hempstead concluded that it did not want to be used as a “lottery ticket” by litigants trying to collect simply by filing lawsuits.
Bierwirth was named to his special consulting post — “distinguished educator” is the title — in September by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. He began work in the district in early October.
One of the veteran administrator’s tasks, in addition to serving as the state’s liaison within the Hempstead district, is to issue quarterly reports detailing actions taken to deal with problems he has identified, including political divisions, deteriorated school buildings, gang fighting and low graduation rates.
Bierwirth’s quarterly report also says Feb. 15 has been set as a target date for Hempstead administrators to submit a revamped budget proposal for 2018-19, along with a five-year building plan, to the board and the local community.