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Hempstead school board interviews superintendent candidates behind closed doors

Hempstead School District Superintendent Susan Johnson addresses the

Hempstead School District Superintendent Susan Johnson addresses the community during a presentation at a public board meeting, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Hempstead school board Thursday night took the first step to determine who will lead the administration of the troubled district as it faces mandates to improve academic performance and fix enrollment problems.

The four-member school board met behind closed doors in a special meeting “to interview candidates for superintendent” as the contract with Superintendent Susan Johnson is set to expire at the end of June.

Whoever is appointed will face pressure to address a host of issues under the state’s watch and on deadline in a low-income district besieged by many challenges.

Board president LaMont Johnson, who is not related to the superintendent, said he considers this a “nationwide” search for someone with qualifications and committed to make a difference.

“You need somebody that wants to be here,” Johnson said. “This is a challenging district. You have to be willing to put in . . . probably more hours than normal” to make a difference.

“The schools needs a turnaround, so you need somebody who has ideas and vision,” he said.

Hempstead is a district in a high-poverty area with a population of mostly Hispanic and black students, 68 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged and 30 percent are not fully proficient in English, according to the 2014-15 school report card for the district.

The board had debated before whether to part ways with Susan Johnson as it dealt with various crises, but elected to wait for her contract to run out.

Johnson — who could still be a candidate for the job — returned from retirement in 2013 to take a three-year contract under former board president Betty Cross, who in 2014 lost her re-election bid in a disputed race.

She has presided over years where the district’s academic performance continued to slip, landing Hempstead High School on the list of “persistently struggling” schools that haven’t reached academic benchmarks for at least 10 years. The district’s Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School is labeled “struggling” because it has not met academic standards for three years.

The district also ran into trouble following an influx of immigrant children from Central America in 2014, when it was accused of turning away the students. Hempstead’s enrollment remains under monitoring by the state attorney general’s office as a result.

A state comptroller report highlighted administrative and accounting problems in 2014, including one that Susan Johnson, hired under a base annual salary of $210,000, was overpaid tens of thousands of dollars. She was placed on a repayment plan.

Under the state’s receivership law passed last year, superintendents whose districts have struggling schools are given additional powers to hire or fire staff, reshape curricula and modify budgets. But they also are expected to show demonstrable improvements within a year or two.

State education department officials said the district does not receive additional time to meet those requirements if it appoints a new superintendent.

The district board recently approved contracts to seek outside help to improve its high school and prepare staff teaching English learners. The next superintendent would oversee those changes.

“The staff we have now . . . are working very hard, everybody takes these actions very seriously,” LaMont Johnson said, “and strides are being made.”

The district did not yet disclose the likely terms or salary range for its next superintendent. A final vote on a superintendent would not occur until the board holds a public hearing.

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