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Hempstead school board rejects bond referendum proposal

New 3-member voting block votes down plan for referendum to decide whether century old Rhodes School would be torn down and replaced.

From left, Hempstead school board trustees David Gates,

From left, Hempstead school board trustees David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith at a meeting on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A new three-member majority controlling Hempstead’s school board rejected on Thursday night a minority proposal to hold a February referendum on a $46.8 million bond issue to rebuild the district’s long-shuttered Marguerite G. Rhodes School.

The referendum plan failed on a 3-2 vote. Trustees David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith opposed the plan while board President Maribel Touré and Vice President Gwendolyn Jackson were in favor.

During a debate on the issue, punctuated by shouts from the audience, Stith and Gates indicated they might support building a new school at a later date, but objected, in Gates’ words, to the way the proposal “is being rammed down our throats.”

Under the defeated plan, the Rhodes school, which was permanently closed in 2004 and is more than a century old, would have been torn down and replaced by a new structure. District schools still operating are overcrowded, and an estimated 1,500 of the district’s 8,500 students currently attend classes in aging portable buildings that many parents consider health hazards due to mold.

“For years and years, whoever’s on the board has been talking about building a new school,” Touré said. “We cannot delay this process any longer.”

Gates led the majority’s challenge of the February referendum plan by questioning some of the district administration’s financial projections. One estimate put forward at the meeting, for example, was that the bond borrowing would cost the owner of a house valued at $218,800 an extra $37.56 in annual taxes.

“There is not a house in the village of Hempstead that has a value of $218,000,” Gates said, “That’s not real.”

District officials responded that their figures were taken from actual assessment rolls, but that they would widen the range of houses included in their estimates if that would help.

They had estimated that a $46 million bond issue would cover costs of demolishing the old school and building a new one capable of holding 700 elementary students. Some of the money also would have been used to tear down many, but not all, of the portable structures.

Residents and school officials disagree over the timing of a bond issue vote, which is required by state law.

Some, including Touré, favored a February ballot on grounds that it would help get the construction project started quickly and allow residents to consider the issue separately from the district’s other spending priorities. Others favored a May vote that would allow the bond issue to be presented along with the district’s regular proposed budget, and also give residents more time to weigh the pros and cons.

“I’m in favor of the bond issue, but I don’t want it to be rushed in February,” said Unique Redd, a mother of three students in the district who supports the board’s new majority.

Redd said in an interview before Thursday’s board decision a May vote would allow backers of the project time to build support among community residents. She added that her 11-year-old son, who has asthma, attends classes in portable structures and has had to take days off for the first time this year due to breathing problems that she believes are related to mold.

“They’re disgusting,” Redd said of the portables.

Control of the Hempstead board shifted late last month, when Johnson was returned to the panel under state order, after other trustees attempted unsuccessfully to remove him.

Success or failure of Hempstead schools is a matter of state interest. The district is the only one in New York assigned a special adviser known as a “distinguished educator”. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia appointed veteran administrator Jack Bierwirth to the post in September, in order to provide “guidance and technical assistance” to a district with the lowest graduation rate on Long Island.

Bierwirth strongly supported the bond proposal at the meeting, saying the clusters of aging portable classrooms were “embarrassing to look at.”

After the rejection of the bond issue, the board majority passed its own resolutions, firing law firms hired by the former majority and hiring firms of its own choosing.

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