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Hempstead school board puts Superintendent Waronker on leave

Tuesday night’s board meeting was the first since the superintendent posted a letter accusing trustees of undermining his efforts to improve the district.

Hempstead school board trustees and residents inundated Superintendent Shimon Waronker on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, with questions regarding burst water pipes, inadequate heating and other problems that led to a series of school closures over the past several days during a frigid spell. (Credit: Newsday / Christopher Ware)

Shimon Waronker, the embattled superintendent of the Hempstead school district, was placed on administrative leave late Tuesday night by the district’s school board majority — an action, which if it holds up, will ban the former New York City educator from intervening in the operations of Long Island’s most troubled school system.

The action was on a 3-2 vote — a common pattern on the divided board. The majority — David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith — voted in favor of putting Waronker on leave; board president Maribel Touré and vice president Gwendolyn Jackson voted against the move.

Whether the board can legally put Waronker on leave remains in doubt. Jackson, who opposed his removal, raised procedural objections about how the vote was taken.

Waronker, who started his job June 2, said he planned to fight the action legally.

As he left the board meeting at Hempstead High School after the vote shortly before midnight, Waronker said “[the board] are violating the contract and the law.”

Associate Superintendent Regina Armstrong was temporarily placed in charge of the district.

“We have full confidence in Miss Armstrong to be the leader at the helm in the absence of Dr. Waronker,” Stith said.

After the meeting in the high school auditorium, while Waronker and others prepared to leave, one spectator sat down at a piano, with other audience members joining in, for a jubilant rendition of “Hit the Road Jack.”

Before Waronker came to Hempstead he earned a national reputation for turning around low-performing and violent schools in New York City.

Soon after he began as Hempstead’s superintendent, Waronker stirred protests from some residents and district workers for hiring extra staff at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also faced criticism for contracting with a non-profit corporation he founded, New American Schools Initiative, for consulting work at a cost of $450,000.

At the time the contract was signed, Waronker said he had not profited personally from the arrangement.

The board’s vote came hours after the meeting started at 6 p.m.

Early in the meeting, angry trustees and residents peppered Waronker with questions about burst water pipes, inadequate heating and other problems that led to a series of school closures in the district last week and on Monday.

But the board did not immediately discuss in public major issues raised in a special adviser’s report released Monday — particularly how the district might repair its fractured leadership. The panel went into an extended private executive session for several hours.

When they came out, they voted. The session marked the first time the five-member board has met since Waronker over the weekend posted an “open letter” accusing the board majority of undermining his efforts to improve the troubled district. Tuesday night, members of the panel had not addressed specific points in the letter before they went into the executive session.

Waronker’s critics on the board and in the audience — some of whom have sought his removal for months — focused initially not on his letter but on recent school closings caused by maintenance problems rather than snowfall.

“I want to know why,” Stith said as the audience applauded.

“These problems did not happen overnight,” Waronker said. His answers were often drowned out by dozens of audience members who have shown up regularly in recent months to voice their displeasure.

Waronker’s challenge to majority trustees, posted over the weekend on the district’s website, was followed on Monday by the release of a scathing report by a state-appointed adviser on the status of the district’s academic performance, finances and physical plant.

The report by special adviser Jack Bierwirth did deal with the district’s failures in the past to provide adequate maintenance to buildings and also the need for the district to rapidly come up with a capital improvement plan. However, the report dealt with a much wider array of issues in addition — for example, concluding that a lack of cohesive leadership is a major problem in Hempstead, and that both Waronker and board members should seek professional training from appropriate education associations.

The report also concluded that gang warfare has endangered students and staff and administrators face difficulty making accurate enrollment counts.

Bierwirth’s report, backed by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, sets a challenging agenda for Hempstead’s board. The trustees have been instructed to devise a comprehensive school improvement plan by Jan. 18, along with a code of conduct and five-year capital facilities plan by February.

“Hopefully, it’s a wake-up call,” said Robert Dillon, superintendent of the Nassau BOCES district, who serves as the Education Department’s regional representative for schools in the county. “There’s certainly the talent there to make things work. Now they just have to get it done. I think Jack’s just the one to put things together.”

In his weekend message to Hempstead residents, Waronker stressed the urgency of his efforts to repair district schools, address overcrowding, provide a safer environment for students and raise academic performance that ranks at the bottom in the region.

The board’s majority has said their votes to block some of the superintendent’s priority programs reflect a desire to spare taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra expenses approved by a former board majority. The current majority has noted, as has Bierwirth, that the extra costs for teacher training, academic consulting and other services were not submitted to voters when they approved the district’s $202.7 million budget in May.

Since the new majority took control in November, major decisions have been made mostly on 3-2 votes, with Gates, Johnson and Stith opposite Touré and Jackson.

Trustees now in control have fired several law firms used by the old majority for special assignments, replacing those firms with choices of their own.

However, the Farmingdale law firm of Guercio & Guercio, which represents dozens of districts across the region, continues serving as the district’s general counsel.

“We’ve successfully worked both with the board majority and minority over the years and will make every effort to assist the board in meeting the objectives set by Dr. Bierwirth,” said Gregory Guercio, the firm’s managing partner.

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