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Hempstead district's dispute with superintendent carries high costs

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker defends himself at a

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker defends himself at a special meeting on Jan 9, the day after the release of a special adviser's report that faults district's leadership and after the superintendent's "open letter" of appeal to the community. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Hempstead school board’s dispute with Superintendent Shimon Waronker could be extremely costly and drag on for months or even years, according to experts and the requirements in the sidelined administrator’s contract.

“It’s going to be very difficult to break Waronker’s contract,” said Alan J. Singer, an education professor at Hofstra University. “The last time this happened, they [the district] ended up paying two superintendent salaries for years until everything was finally adjudicated.”

The financial toll on the district already is stacking up, between legal fees and paying Waronker’s $265,000 annual base salary as well as benefits. If the complex matter goes before a hearing officer, expenses for paying an impartial arbitrator and continuing legal fees will be added to the bottom line.

Waronker’s contract, dated May 11, 2017, runs through June 30, 2021. A full payout of salary costs alone over the pact’s remaining term would be $795,000, not including money for paid time off and benefits.

The five-member board voted unanimouslyTuesday to take steps toward dismissing Waronker, who has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 9 as the panel investigated its accusations of mismanagement during his brief time as the active schools chief. Regina Armstrong, a longtime administrator in the system, is serving as acting superintendent and receiving no additional compensation for the interim role.

Hempstead-based attorney Frederick K. Brewington, who represents Waronker, Thursday night released a copy of the 174 pages of charges against his client.

Waronker’s contract requires a hearing and that a hearing officer be mutually selected by him and the board within five days of his receipt of the charges. He has the right to choose whether the hearing is public or private.

The contract requires a minimum of 30 days between his receipt of the charges and the start date of the hearing. If that only includes workdays, it could place the start date of the hearing at the end of September or into October.

Under the agreement, the district is responsible for the cost of the hearing, including the hearing officer’s fees and expenses — all of which can vary.

If both parties choose to file the labor case with the American Arbitration Association, the filing fee would be $275 for each party, and the average compensation for an arbitrator would be between $1,900 and $2,000 per day, according to the association, a nationwide nonprofit that provides resolution services.

Because superintendent removal proceedings are relatively rare, Singer and other education experts said it’s difficult to put an estimate on how long it could take.

“This could continue on for years,” Singer said, adding that attorneys on both sides could stall and there could be appeals.

In the interim, the board must continue to pay Waronker’s salary, plus benefits, and he is entitled to a raise of between 1 percent and 5 percent on July 1, according to his contract. A spokeswoman for the district said he had not received a raise as of Thursday.

The district budgeted $77,710 for his fringe benefits for the 2017-18 school year and $68,500 for 2018-19, which includes employer contributions for Social Security, medical and pension plan costs, according to salary disclosure data provided to the state Education Department.

It was not immediately clear if those figures included a $750-per-month automobile allowance in the contract, which amounts to $9,000 annually.

If he is terminated, Waronker’s contract says he must be paid in full all compensation and benefits within 15 days. Under a calculation specified in the pact, that includes $1,104 per day for accumulated vacation and personal leave days. The contract says he is entitled to 24 vacation days a year and 19 sick/personal days.

If the hearing officer sides with Waronker, the district is on the hook for all of his legal costs and other expenses associated with the hearing, the contract says.

The total legal cost to the district to date, including the investigation leading to the charges, has yet to be determined, board President LaMont Johnson said in an emailed statement Thursday. “The legal fees reflect the burden imposed on the district per the terms of Waronker’s contract,” he wrote.

The tense situation includes a federal lawsuit brought by Waronker challenging his placement on paid leave.

“His ability to leave Hempstead and get another job is at stake,” Singer said of Waronker, who came to the district with a reputation for turning around low-performing and violent schools in New York City. “He needs to vindicate his reputation both as an administrator and as a financial professional.”

This is not the first time the 8,000-plus student district has spent money to separate from its top administrator.

The district has had a revolving door of leadership since 2004, when at one point the system was paying for two superintendents, Nathaniel Clay and Susan Johnson. The board fired Clay, but had to continue to pay his $215,000 annual salary along with the $205,000 salary of Johnson, whom they hired to replace him.

And the board in early 2013 paid out nearly $320,000 in a separation agreement with Superintendent Patricia Garcia in order to avoid a lawsuit.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, in a 2014 audit, criticized the district for its failure to make “sound, transparent financial decisions regarding payments to District administrators.” The audit, which examined the district between July 2011 and June 2013, said, “The Board appointed administrators, changed administrators and entered into and changed agreements with no documented plan, reason or clear benefit to the District.”

Jack Bierwirth, a state-appointed special adviser, has cited the lack of consistent leadership as a major challenge for the district.

Bierwirth in September was named by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to examine Hempstead’s operations and report back to her. His most recent report to Elia, dated July 20, said the board has “major legal issues” to deal with over the next several months, and in a July 31 interview with Newsday he noted the significant costs those pose.

The board and Waronker still could decide to settle, with a payout agreed upon by both parties.

“They have not offered to settle this matter and seem that they are being driven by their attorneys who are being paid a very large amount by the district,” Brewington said in an email.

LaMont Johnson, in an emailed statement, wrote, “In the spirit of transparency the board believes that Dr. Shimon Waronker should make the charges public and agree to a public hearing in this matter.” He did not respond to a request for comment on the potential cost or whether the district would be willing to settle.

“Often what happens in cases like this is there’s a buyout, because it’s cheaper in the long run to pay the buyout than it is to pursue the legal ramifications,” Singer said.

Highlights of dispute's potential cost to school district

Here's a look at the potential payout and costs associated with the Hempstead school district's removal of Superintendent Shimon Waronker under terms of his four-year contract.

  • Waronker’s base salary is $265,000 annually. Buying out his contract would amount to $795,000 in salary costs alone for the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.
  • The schools chief is budgeted to have received $77,710 in fringe benefits for the 2017-18 school year and to receive $68,500 for 2018-19, according to salary disclosure data provided to the state. Benefits for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years could be added to this.
  • His contract includes a $750-per-month automobile allowance, which amounts to $9,000 per year.
  • If terminated, Waronker contractually must be paid $1,104 per day for up to 200 accumulated vacation and 100 personal leave days — a potential total of up to $331,200. He receives 24 vacation days and 19 sick/personal days a year.
  • The cost of the hearing officer, on average, could be $1,900 to $2,000 per day if the parties file the labor case with the American Arbitration Association.

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