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State-appointed adviser blames Hempstead district’s leadership

Jack Bierwirth, seen here on Jan. 3, 2018.

Jack Bierwirth, seen here on Jan. 3, 2018. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

Entrenched divisions in the Hempstead school district’s leadership are blocking efforts to run the 8,000-student system and boost academic performance rated among the lowest in the nation, according to a special state-appointed consultant’s report released Monday by the state Education Department.

Years of strife on the school board and management turnover have created a chaotic situation during which the system’s buildings have deteriorated, gang warfare has endangered students and staff, and administrators face difficulties even making accurate enrollment counts, the wide-ranging report states.

For example, a recent review of 12th-grade records revealed that nearly 300 seniors had left Hempstead High School since September — a dropout rate of 34 percent.

The 56-page report by Jack Bierwirth, a veteran former Long Island school superintendent, places responsibility for the district’s chronic struggles squarely upon its governance — “the single most significant barrier to the District focusing its efforts and resources on the education of its students, which should be of paramount concern.”

Superintendent Shimon Waronker’s capacity to lead has been complicated by district infighting and being “drawn into” the bickering among factions, Bierwirth wrote.

He makes dozens of recommendations for the district’s board and administration to carry out: comprehensive districtwide planning; training for the school board, superintendent and staff; school building upgrades and other improvements.

The Hempstead district — the largest system in Nassau County serving kindergartners through 12th-graders — has long been plagued by feuding and turf battles among school board members, charges of irregularities and voter fraud in board elections, and frequent turnover of superintendents and other administrators.

Bierwirth was appointed in September to his advisory role as a “distinguished educator” by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and began his work there on Oct. 2. Elia’s action reflected the state’s continuing concern with low test scores and other problems that leave Hempstead as the most troubled of Long Island’s 124 districts. He had a broad mandate to conduct an intensive review of all district operations, finances, curriculum and personnel and report back to Elia.

“Too many cohorts of students have cycled through a district that is not meeting their basic needs for a safe and healthy environment, let alone providing them with educational opportunities to inspire them to reach their fullest potential,” Bierwirth concluded. “Any time lost in implementing the recommendations herein is a detriment to current and future Hempstead students — we do not have a moment to waste.”

Elia, in approving Bierwirth’s recommendations and action plan, emphasized that district leaders and school board trustees must work with the special adviser in making changes.

She sent the report to board president Maribel Touré and Waronker on Monday with a letter stating that she approved Bierwirth’s findings and recommendations, and expects the board “to fully comply,” giving a deadline of Feb. 2 for submission of a response plan.

“I am confident that, working together, the district and board of education can make the changes needed to provide all students in Hempstead with a high-quality education,” Elia said in a prepared statement.

The five-member board has scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the board room at Hempstead High School.

Touré objected Monday to the scheduled meeting time, noting that she already had told board colleagues she could not return to Hempstead from her Manhattan workplace by that time and had asked for 7 p.m. starts instead.

She said the 6 p.m. scheduling reflects the intransigent attitude of the three trustees in the majority: David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith.

“They are saying, ‘Look, we can do whatever we want,’ ” Touré said.

Johnson said he values Bierwirth’s opinion and would make an effort to work with other trustees “as a cohesive group” to carry out the special adviser’s recommendations.

“Jack Bierwirth has been a breath of fresh air,” said Johnson, a former president of the board.

The special adviser’s report also stresses these points:

  • High school students often did not receive adequate preparation to reach their potential and succeed on state exams, with many eventually giving up. For instance, of 241 students in 12th grade who took a Regents trigonometry exam, 154 failed on the first attempt. Of 47 who made a second attempt, 26 failed.
  • The current, confused state of district finances reflects years of chronic mismanagement and staff turnover. For example, Hempstead has had 20 different assistant superintendents for business in the past 21 years.
  • Classrooms already are overcrowded, a situation that could get worse as enrollment continues to grow. Dozens of portable classrooms clustered throughout the district are 30 to 40 years old, in bad condition and expensive to maintain.
  • Safety was a top issue raised by parents and community members. The report says “well over 50 fights” have occurred at Hempstead High since September, with some incidents resulting in injuries, and weapons have been brought onto school property. While more security staff recently has been hired — a step in the right direction, the report says — more must be done.
  • Cuts in district maintenance budgets over the years have led to a series of breakdowns in school heating systems and other problems. The point was underscored Monday with a posted announcement that the district’s Barack Obama Elementary School had been closed temporarily because of a weather-related emergency. Last week, three other schools were forced to close for a time because of water or sewage problems or lack of adequate heat.

The state’s report came on the heels of an “open letter” by Waronker that was posted on the Hempstead district’s website over the weekend.

Waronker, who took over as schools chief on June 2, contended in that letter that his attempts to turn around the struggling district have been undermined by the board’s three-member majority.

Bierwirth’s report credited Waronker and his administration for taking preliminary steps to stabilize the system — for example, by reviewing the district’s finances and upgrading placement of students in special education.

However, the special adviser also stated that Waronker put himself in a precarious position because of public perceptions that he had allied himself with a previous board majority that lost power in November. That earlier majority had agreed to sign a $450,000 consulting contract with a nonprofit organization, New American Initiative, founded by Waronker before he became Hempstead’s superintendent.

“It is doubtful whether any leader could have successfully straddled the entrenched divide within the board, but these political issues complicate the superintendent’s capacity to lead the district,” Bierwirth wrote.

Waronker has emphasized that he did not personally profit from the district’s contract with New American Initiative.

Bierwirth, in recommendations to address the district’s leadership problems, said the school board should take part in training provided by the New York State School Boards Association, or another state-approved entity, “covering issues such as school district governance and board and community relations.”

He also said the superintendent should undergo training by an appropriate organization, such as the New York State Council of School Superintendents, “regarding the roles and responsibilities of a superintendent and building and maintaining an appropriate working relationship with a board of education.”

Frederick Brewington, a Hempstead attorney who represents Waronker in his faceoff with the board majority, dismissed the assertion that his client had undermined his own position.

“Not at all,” Brewington said. “This is the critical point at which his leadership has to be confirmed. The changes he has proposed are the ones needed to turn this district around.”

Brewington also noted that much of Bierwirth’s consulting report dealt with problems that festered long before the superintendent took over seven months ago.

“A lot of this is not new,” he said.

Elia named Bierwirth a distinguished educator under a 2011 state law that has been used only once before in New York State. The previous appointment was in 2012, in Buffalo.

Bringing in an experienced school administrator such as Bierwirth, who was superintendent of the Herricks district between 2001 and 2015, entails substantial expense.

The Hempstead district budgeted $117,000 to cover the special adviser’s compensation and expenses through June, and the district calculated in a Dec. 22 letter to Bierwirth that $61,532.68 of that amount had been spent through November. In that letter, which was copied to the commissioner, Waronker suggested that Bierwirth budget his time carefully to remain within those expense limits.

Elia disagreed, telling the Hempstead superintendent in a Dec. 27 letter that Bierwirth’s services are critical to the district. Accordingly, the commissioner ordered Waronker to “reevaluate your budget to ensure that the reasonable and necessary expenses of the distinguished educator are paid by the district in accordance with education law.”

Appointing distinguished educators to districts is not the only tool available to the state in dealing with troubled schools.

Under a 2015 state law, pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, commissioners also can place schools under the control of independent receivers — that is, outside managers — whenever schools fail to improve under less stringent controls. The law empowers local school boards to appoint receivers, but also provides that when boards do not name candidates acceptable to a commissioner, the commissioner herself can make the call.

Recommendations for district fixes

Distinguished Educator Jack Bierwirth’s recommendations include:

  • School board and superintendent must have “a clear understanding” of their roles in providing sound leadership.
  • Board must treat an ongoing forensic audit “with the urgency and importance it requires.”
  • District must revise the district’s code of conduct and develop a comprehensive school safety plan by Feb. 1.
  • Board and administrators must develop a long-range plan and five-year capital facilities plan, with public input, with trustees to adopt in February.
  • District must devise a comprehensive school improvement plan, to be reviewed at Jan. 18 meeting and submitted to state Education Department.
  • District must complete corrective action plan for English-language learners and special education students.

— Newsday staff

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