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State education officials plan meeting in Hempstead to discuss district's progress

Hempstead school board trustees are expected to meet

Hempstead school board trustees are expected to meet with state education officials Thursday. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Top state education officials have scheduled a three-hour visit Thursday to the Hempstead school district, at a moment when the future of Nassau County's most troubled system hangs in the balance.

A tentative schedule calls for private meetings starting at 10 a.m. between Hempstead district leaders and state authorities, including Betty Rosa of the Bronx, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, and Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the board. 

Differences between state and local authorities over details of the meetings emerged Friday afternoon, however, and remained to be worked out. A copy of the schedule was obtained by Newsday and confirmed by several invited participants.

Those asked to join in a school tour after the private meetings include two state lawmakers who have pushed for assignment of state monitors to the 7,600-student district. Hempstead board members have resisted any such action up to now, saying the monitoring proposal "does nothing to help our students."

Hempstead, which has been a focal point of state school-improvement efforts, is the poorest district in Nassau in terms of taxable wealth and has reported the lowest high school graduation rates in the Nassau-Suffolk region.

One of the legislators, state Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Garden City), confirmed he planned to attend Thursday's session, adding he looked forward to continuing to work with the state and Hempstead in "directing all possible resources to creating a successful educational experience for our students." 

These are uncertain times for Nassau's largest school district. 

On Oct. 2, Jack Bierwirth, a veteran school superintendent who served as a special state adviser to the district, stepped down after two years in the post. He originally was appointed to help Hempstead deal with an array of troubles that included political infighting on the board, gang fights in schools and low academic performance at both elementary and secondary levels.

Bierwirth has not been replaced. 

Meanwhile, Thomas and other supporters of continued state intervention in Hempstead have continued their push for a state-appointed monitoring board. A bill passed by the State Legislature in June calls for creation of monitors with powers beyond those exercised by Bierwirth, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not yet indicated whether he will sign the bill into law.

All parties involved have sworn their continued support for academic improvement in Hempstead, while disagreeing on how this will be done. 

Rosa signaled her support Oct. 7, when she said during a brief meeting with reporters that she would be visiting Hempstead soon without going into detail. 

Later that afternoon, a Hempstead spokeswoman, Nicole Epstein, messaged the state's interim education commissioner, Beth Berlin, inviting her to a meeting with Hempstead's five-member board. Epstein is an associate with a Garden City-based firm, Gotham Government Relations and Communications, which represents the district. 

Hempstead's board "will come to Albany to meet anytime that works for you or can host a meeting in the district if that works better," Epstein's message stated. "We really are looking forward to working together and having real discussions on how to ensure that the progress made to-date continues in the future." 

Berlin reports to Rosa and the rest of the Regents board. 

A memo circulated by the state Education Department on Friday calls for a somewhat different format. It lists Kim Wilkins, a deputy state education commissioner, Rosa, Tilles and two legislators, Thomas and Assemb. Taylor Darling (D-Hempstead). 

On the local side, the memo lists David Gates, president of Hempstead's board, Carmen Ayala, the board vice president, and Regina Armstrong, the acting superintendent. Bierwirth also is included.

The memo calls for about an hour of private meeting time, followed by a school tour. 

Epstein, speaking on behalf of school board members, told Newsday on Friday that the amount of time scheduled for meetings was nowhere near sufficient and should be extended for the entire three hours of the state's visit. Epstein added that all board trustees should participate, and be given a chance to outline Hempstead's future financial needs as well as the progress it has made. 

"The board wants to discuss the facts and the data and how the progress made so far can be continued in the future," Epstein said. "This is not a 30-minute discussion. It is outrageous to think that now is the appropriate time to schedule a tour for state officials, who could have done this on their own time, but haven't, and could do so on their own time in the future."

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