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Report: Hempstead schools better off, but facing $11 million hike in charter costs

Jack Bierwirth, the state-appointed special adviser to the

Jack Bierwirth, the state-appointed special adviser to the Hempstead school district, says the district is hurting because of the rising cost of charter school tuition and transportation reimbursement. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The Hempstead school district has improved in key academic and nonacademic areas — including graduation rates, Regents scores, security and facilities — but faces financial challenges that might require an additional $11 million for its 2020-21 budget, according to a new report.

“Put bluntly, the district is going to have to cut another $11 million per year out of its annual budget if significant help is not forthcoming,” Jack Bierwirth, a state-appointed special adviser assigned to the 8,000-student district in 2017, said in his quarterly report.

Among the district’s biggest new obstacles are increasing costs due to increased enrollment at three charter schools, a problem Bierwirth said in the report will raise tuition reimbursement and transportation costs from $44 million this next academic year to $55 million for 2020-21. The overall budget for the 2019-20 school year is $221.5 million.

Bierwirth in February also spoke to the district's school board about the growing number of students choosing to attend Academy Charter, Evergreen Charter and Roosevelt Children’s Academy.

Acting Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong declined to comment Wednesday. David B. Gates, president of the five-member board of education, could not be reached for comment.

“Overall, the district continues to make very solid progress in every area except governance, and the steps in process support further progress in 2019-20,” Bierwirth wrote in the report covering April through June. “Data on several critical benchmarks for 2018-19 — grades 3-8 state ELA and math assessment results and final graduation results after summer school — will not be available until the end of the summer, but the indications are that both continued to show significant progress.”

The report, dated July 10, praises the district for reaching several academic benchmarks. Its Regents scores for June showed “substantial improvement” with the passing rate for algebra I increasing from 21 percent last June to 45 percent, geometry remaining the same at 33 percent, and algebra II increasing from 48 percent to 68 percent. Also, participation in Advanced Placement courses is up, from 187 exams in 2014 to 285 in 2019, and the district is poised to offer 13 AP courses during 2019-20, according to the report.

And while Bierwirth said the high school graduation rate figures are not yet available, he said he anticipates a sharp spike in the rate, perhaps the most closely watched metric in the district’s performance.

“Middle school has stabilized,” he wrote, adding that on standardized tests there has been some improvement, too. On the English and math assessment in grades 3-8, he said indications are that grades will show improvement for the fourth year in a row since they correlate with results on the iReady assessment.

Additionally, Bierwirth said the district should be recognized for hitting its 2018-19 budget of $221.5 million.

“It is not yet as sophisticated as it could or should be, but the strides since February 2018 have been extraordinary,” he wrote. “This is particularly impressive given the pressure on expenses from increased charter school tuition and transportation costs and a relatively minimal state aid increase for 2019-20. The district needed to make very difficult decisions, painful decisions, regarding staffing. They made them, however, and this needs to be fully recognized.”

But the 10-page report also offers a sobering analysis of challenges Bierwirth said have plagued the district for years, including how well it is run. He said the district lacks “a full experienced and highly expert team of administrators” who could keep the district running smoothly instead of relying on a cadre of retirees who, though capable, may not be available for the long term.

He noted that the district needs a permanent assistant superintendent for business, facilities head and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

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