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Hempstead interim school chief’s pact, pension questioned

Hempstead School District Interim Superintendent Fadhilika Atiba-Weza is

Hempstead School District Interim Superintendent Fadhilika Atiba-Weza is seen outside Hempstead School District office in Hempstead, Friday July 1, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Hempstead school’s contract with an interim superintendent is hanging in the balance after the New York State Education Department denied the district’s request for the new hire to collect his pension while drawing a salary.

The district board, seeking to turnaround after years of fiscal problems and underperforming schools, unanimously voted for retired administrator Fadhilika Atiba-Weza to take the helm of the district starting last month. They saw him as an experienced manager who could hit the ground running. He was hired for a one-year term to replace an outgoing superintendent.

State rules prevent undue double-dipping from retirees receiving pensions. That means the board needs a waiver to validate the contract and the district has to explain why Atiba-Weza, a former superintendent in upstate Troy, was the best hire among other qualified candidates.

The district failed to make its case, according to a memorandum sent Monday on behalf of state education officials by Robert R. Dillon, district superintendent for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services of Nassau County, known as Nassau BOCES.

Dillon wrote that the information provided by the district “is woefully inadequate to support the requested waiver application.” As part of the requirement, the state asked for details on the selection process and how the position was advertised to attract a wide pool of candidates.

“A district seeking a waiver has to submit the application to the district superintendent and there is a certain criteria that it must address . . . and, in my judgment, it didn’t meet the standards,” Dillon said in an interview. “I am hopeful that they will provide a document that will meet the standard. If not, they will have some decisions to make” about the contract.

Dillon said Wednesday that he had met with school board president Maribel Touré and a district lawyer and that Hempstead plans to submit a revised waiver request.

Touré said the waiver request could be corrected to meet the state’s requirements “by providing a more detailed history of the board’s efforts to recruit a qualified superintendent of schools.” She said the BOCES superintendent had been “very supportive” in giving the district time to address those questions.

Atiba-Weza said the district was working on the matter. “The BOCES superintendent indicated to us that he would not recommend the waiver to the [education] commissioner, based on some information that is not correct, and we are preparing a response,” Atiba-Weza said. “I’m confident that the statement that we are preparing in our response will be sufficient for me to be granted a waiver.”

The law currently caps earnings that pension holders can receive without seeking waivers to $30,000 in a calendar year, according to the Office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. While the district has not released the contract, its waiver request specified Atiba-Weza’s salary at $215,000 for the year. He agreed to forego medical insurance, saving the district those costs, because he already has coverage from a previous employer, district sources said.

The district application, wrote Dillon, did not elaborate on why board members selected Atiba-Weza out of a pool of 15 candidates including “well qualified former Superintendents of Schools” and “other well-seasoned retired Superintendents of Schools who did not require issuance of a waiver” to collect pensions.

The hiring of a superintendent is critical in a district with two schools under state receivership for failing to reach academic benchmarks. Hempstead High School has been classified as “persistently struggling” due to poor academic results for at least a decade while the district’s Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School is labeled as “struggling” for underperforming in at least three consecutive years.

Under state law, the superintendent is acting as a receiver with expanded powers to hire and fire and make necessary curriculum changes in search of better results, but if that fails the district could be forced to place those schools under outside managers.

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