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Court sides with Hempstead district, says Waronker was rightfully removed

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker at a special meeting

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker at a special meeting Jan. 9, 2018, the day he was placed on administrative leave by a school board majority. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A federal appeals court has ruled against a former Hempstead school superintendent's efforts to return to the $265,000-a-year job he lost four months ago in a highly publicized feud with the district's board.

The decision Tuesday by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan upheld a lower-bench ruling that Hempstead's board had not violated the rights of ex-Superintendent Shimon Waronker, when it placed him on leave with pay in a 3-2 vote in January 2018. 

In June of this year, an expanded board majority voted 5-0 to declare Waronker's position vacant, on grounds that the embattled administrator never took a required oath of office. Waronker's supporters have accused the board of exploiting a legal "loophole."

A separate appeal of June's board action is pending before state education authorities in Albany. Meanwhile, Regina Armstrong serves as the district's acting superintendent.  

The latest decision from the Manhattan court rejected Waronker's contention that his freedom of speech was violated, when he was suspended without a hearing after publicly accusing Hempstead's board of corruption. The court ruled that Waronker was speaking in his capacity as chief administrator of the 7,600-student district, and that, as an employee, his First Amendment rights had not been stifled.   

The appellate directive upheld a January decision by the U.S. District Court in Central Islip.

Hempstead is the largest K-12 school system in Nassau County.  

Jonathan Scher, an attorney for the Hempstead district, voiced satisfaction that the appeals bench reached a relatively quick decision after oral arguments, while also charging Waronker for court costs. 

"It's good to see that this chapter of wrongful litigation was brought to a close very quickly," Scher said. 

"We're disappointed by the determination, but that does not end the conversation on the wrongful actions of the district," said Frederick Brewington, the attorney who represented Waronker. 

Brewington added that he and his client were considering various legal options, and had filed notice in preparation for follow-up litigation. 

Waronker, 50, was hired by Hempstead in April 2017, on a four-year contract approved a month later. The Harvard-educated administrator earlier had developed a reputation for turning around low-performing schools in New York City. 

In Hempstead, the schools chief quickly embarked on what he described as a "reshaping" of the troubled district, hiring and firing personnel, bringing in outside educational help and contracting with an auditing firm to root out "corruption and mismanagement."

Within months, Waronker ran into the same sort of abrupt change in the district's political leadership that repeatedly had stymied past improvement efforts. Board control flipped to a new majority, and that resulted in suspension.

In January 2018, Waronker went public with accusations that majority trustees had derailed his academic reforms and efforts to ferret out corruption. Seven months later, the board's majority countered with charges against the superintendent that included bid-rigging and conflict of interest. 

After Waronker's departure, Jack Bierwirth, a veteran school superintendent, continued to serve the district as a state-appointed special adviser. Bierwirth, who was brought into Hempstead in September 2017, stepped down Oct. 2, after completing a two-year term.

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