The Marguerite G. Rhodes School in the Hempstead school district...

The Marguerite G. Rhodes School in the Hempstead school district on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. The school, at 270 Washington St. in Hempstead, was closed in 2004. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Hempstead school board voted unanimously Thursday night to seek voters’ authorization of a $46.8 million bond issue to demolish the aged Marguerite G. Rhodes School, construct a new school on that site and eliminate nearly half of the portable classrooms in the district.

The 5-0 vote puts the bond issue on the May 15 ballot — at the same time that residents will decide on the district’s proposed 2018-19 budget and school board races. The action came just over two months after the board voted against holding such a referendum this month.

During the meeting at Hempstead High School, acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong also broadly outlined the ingredients of a budget for the coming school year — which she said would hold the line on property taxes. Itemized specifics on projected costs were not provided.

“We want to make sure our budget for the 2018-2019 school year is focused on the needs of the students,” Armstrong said. “In this budget, we want to make sure that we address these issues, especially when it comes to this idea of empowering our learners.”

The proposed bond issue is the first of four anticipated ballot authorizations that will be put before district voters over the next few years, Armstrong said. In demolishing the Rhodes School — which was 93 years old when it closed in 2004 — and building a new elementary school on the site, the district would provide space for the system’s increasing population, which is expected to number more than 9,000 students by 2025.

It would require a 1.59 percent increase in property taxes, district officials said, estimating that a homeowner who currently pays $5,000 per year in property taxes would pay an additional $80 annually over the term of the bond.

The need to upgrade facilities and develop a five-year capital plan was an imperative highlighted in a Jan. 8 report by Jack Bierwirth, the special adviser appointed by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to assess the struggling district’s operations and recommend steps for improvement.

Regina Armstrong, acting superintendent of the Hempstead school district, gives...

Regina Armstrong, acting superintendent of the Hempstead school district, gives a presentation on the preliminary 2018-19 budget during a school board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The elementary-school-focused “First Step” plan calls for building a new school to serve up to 780 children from prekindergarten through fifth grade. It also would feature support staff classrooms and spaces for STEM, music, physical education and a cafeteria/auditorium.

The plan includes the removal of 24 modular classrooms — of which there are 56 systemwide — at Jackson Main, Jackson Annex and Franklin schools. It would allow the district to scuttle its leasing of the Front Street School and upgrade other schools.

If all goes according to plan, Armstrong said, students could be in the new building by September 2021.

At Thursday night’s meeting, the acting schools chief presented a preliminary budget draft, which projects a zero increase in local property taxes, drawing $2.75 million from the district’s cash reserves in order to hold the line.

The blueprint also calls for $10 million in spending on energy improvements, including school boilers and lighting, and $9 million in technology improvements.

The preliminary draft provided no overall budget estimate for 2018-19. Hempstead’s current budget for 2017-18 is about $202.7 million.

With John Hildebrand

Hempstead’s 2018-19 budget blueprint

  • Cash reserves to be applied to next year’s budget are considered excess funds. District officials had reported earlier this year that the system’s fiscal status had improved substantially from last year, when the state comptroller’s office had designated Hempstead as facing significant financial stress.
  • Seven of Hempstead’s 10 schools currently are on state lists of buildings where academic performance is low. The district hopes to raise all schools to good standing in 2018-19.
  • District officials expect to maintain student programs and services at current levels next year. One goal for 2018-19 is to provide more “pathway” alternatives for earning diplomas to students who are struggling.
  • If additional funding becomes available, district priorities would include hiring more reading teachers, adding instrumental music programs in elementary schools and providing students with more remedial tutoring.
  • One issue to be addressed in coming months is whether Hempstead should expand bus transportation. The district currently provides the state minimum — for example, busing for elementary students living 2 miles or more from school.

— John Hildebrand

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