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Lawmakers reach agreement on Wyandanch, Hempstead school monitors

Newsday education reporter Joie Tyrrell talks about the agreement to install state monitors to oversee the Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts. (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

An agreement has been reached in an effort to appoint state monitors to oversee the Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office said Friday.

The original two bills, approved by the State Legislature in June, gave monitors an unusual degree of power over the districts, including veto power over spending and appointment of the superintendent in Wyandanch — and created a three-person panel with similar authority in Hempstead. Two amendments to the bills, filed Thursday, still call for a monitor in each district, but give greater authority to the state commissioner of education, who would approve the systems' academic and financial plans as well as appointment of the monitors.

The governor’s office said the amended bills could be considered as soon as next week, and state Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) added they could be enacted by the end of the month. The state Education Department then would appoint monitors and set their salaries, which would be paid from school district budgets.

Officials with the governor’s office said they expect the state Education Department to act fast in appointing monitors. The compromise legislation also provides transparency, with public hearings required in each district, they said.

“After discussions with the Legislature, we've reached an agreement that will help us achieve this goal by ensuring the communities have input into the monitor process through extensive public hearings, that the monitor and the board will work collaboratively to reach consensus on academic and fiscal plans, and that ultimate accountability and responsibility lies where it belongs, with the commissioner of education,” Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall said Friday.

The Hempstead bill was sponsored by Assemb. Taylor Darling (D-Hempstead) and Thomas. The Wyandanch bill was backed by Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Babylon) and state Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford).

The Hempstead school board was critical of the initial proposals, with members saying they were leery of provisions in the bills allowing monitors veto power over expenditures and the appointment of superintendents.

“This ensures that the children who are growing up in this district [Hempstead] now have a future," Thomas said Friday. "The governor had an opportunity to shed light on this school district, and he took that opportunity.”

Hempstead Board of Education president David Gates questioned why tax dollars would be used to pay a monitor who will have no real role or responsibility. Last year, the state's adviser to the district, Jack Bierwirth, a former school superintendent with 50 years' experience in education, stepped down after serving his allotted two years in Hempstead.

Both Hempstead and Wyandanch have been dealing with staff cuts because of their budgets. The districts are the poorest on the Island in terms of taxable property values and family incomes.

“We’re very pleased that Governor Cuomo made sure that Assemblywoman Darling and Senator Thomas did not succeed in taking away our community’s vote in the name of 'help' as they desperately tried to do," Gates said. "Let’s not forget that our graduation rate went up almost 30% since 2017 under the distinguished educator model, and the hard work of our students and staff, yet this legislation sadly provides less support than under that model."

The new Wyandanch bill includes financial relief for the district: $1 million in state aid for the current school year. The district had financial trouble fielding athletic teams to start the school year because it has been operating on a contingency budget.

“Removing the veto power of the fiscal monitor ensures that the voice of Wyandanch residents represented by the elected BOE trustees is heard in our local community," said Gina Talbert, Wyandanch's acting superintendent. "We look forward to learning more about the possibilities of the state releasing early state aid up to $1 million and other financial benefits that will help us overcome the fiscal challenges that lie ahead.”

Under the new bills, the commissioner of education's appointed monitor would "provide oversight, guidance, and technical assistance related to the educational and fiscal policies, practices, programs and decisions of the school district, board of education, and superintendent." The commissioner could overrule any decisions made by a monitor.

State Education Department officials did not immediately provide salary information for the monitors, but spokesperson Emily DeSantis said in a statement that the amended legislation "is an important step in providing much-needed oversight to work toward a more stable and brighter future for the students … The department will, however, be seeking appropriate resources and staff to adequately meet the directive of this legislation.”

Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer said the amended legislation is "better than nothing, but it certainly is not a strong as the original proposal."

MONITOR REQUIREMENTS

  • The monitor attends all board meetings, including executive sessions.
  • The board of education and the monitor develop a financial plan and an academic improvement plan by Nov. 1, and that a public hearing is held before submitting the plan to the commissioner of education. Such plan must be approved by the commissioner of education by Jan. 15, 2021.
  • The monitor should review all budgets and submit them annually to the commissioner of education for approval.
  • The monitor would be authorized to disapprove travel outside of the state and be required to assist in resolving disputes and conflicts among the board of education, its members and the superintendent.
  • Provides fiscal relief for Wyandanch. The district will receive a one-time $1 million increase in revenue for the 2019-20 school year. The amount of the advance is gradually reduced until after 30 years it phases out completely. Also, authorizes the district to issue up to $3.1 million in bonds.

SOURCE: New York State Assembly, governor's office

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