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Hempstead district seeks outside view on finances

Hempstead school district interim superintendent Fadhilika Atiba-Weza discusses

Hempstead school district interim superintendent Fadhilika Atiba-Weza discusses agenda items at a public meeting, Thursday evening, Sept. 15, 2016. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Hempstead school board officials on Thursday agreed to seek outside help to get to the bottom of their finances and figure out how the district got off track in overspending its funds in previous years.

The board voted unanimously Thursday night on a proposal to hire a firm or financial expert to pore through its books and see where funds allotted from property taxes went over the years.

The cost and duration of the financial inquiry will be determined later, when a contract is drawn from proposals submitted by potential auditors, but the resolution seeks for the audit to cover school spending from 2005 to 2016.

The resolution pursuing a forensic audit was proposed by Melissa Figueroa, elected in May for a one-year term to fill a board vacancy.

Figueroa said before the vote that she believes it’s time for the board to take concrete steps to change how the district’s funds are managed and allocated, after a history of deficits in a school system that has struggled to address subpar academic results.

“Everything boils down to the bottom line,” Figueroa said. “We constantly find ourselves as a board in a position where we have so many unanswered questions. After being a member of the board for months now, I find it unacceptable that I still haven’t received the information about the business of the district” and why its finances ran afoul.

The district, which has seen enrollment soar to 8,366 students as of the current school year, was deemed the most financially stressed school system in New York in a January state comptroller’s report, as its general fund had fallen $15.1 million in the red.

The audit, Figueroa said, should look into any money that was misspent and “also identify if there were any folks who knowingly were malfeasant.”

Board member LaMont Johnson ultimately voted for the audit as part of the consent agenda, but he protested about the language of the resolution raising allegations of issues such as “questionable payments, spending practices, and fiscal mismanagement concerns” without proof.

“Some of these allegations, I think, are self-serving,” Johnson said.

During Thursday’s meeting, board president Maribel Touré and Superintendent Fadhilika Atiba-Weza received a barrage of complaints about transportation — mostly from parents of charter school students, whose buses were delayed or did not show up at all in the first week and a half of school.

Cheryl Wyche, the mother of an 11th-grader who goes to the Roosevelt Children Academy, complained about filthy buses with no supervision on which a fight broke out.

“Her clothes reeked of urine when she came home” on one of those buses, Wyche said. “I’m devastated. I’m horrified. I’m fearful. I’m scared” about letting her daughter ride the bus to school. “I feel that the district should have done their homework” in selecting bus companies.

Ateba-Weza apologized to parents and said he was in discussions with the bus company about the complaints. He also is talking to the district’s lawyers and business officials “and we’re considering canceling this contract,” he said.

Hempstead is operating in 2016-17 with a $189.2 million budget that represented a small decrease in spending from 2015-16, as the board and voters backed in May a plan that promised to right the spending ship. In February an auditor hired by the district said it was overspending its budget by more than $8 million, adding to its operating deficit.

The board’s composition changed after those deficits were disclosed and an interim superintendent, Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, was hired in June to lead the district through a transition year towards a permanent hire. The district hasn’t released its audit report for the school year that ended in June, leaving it out of its response to a recent open records request by Newsday.

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