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Hempstead school board members attack bill for proposed state monitor for district

Hempstead school board members denounce proposed legislation that

Hempstead school board members denounce proposed legislation that would move toward establishing a state-appointed board to monitor and even direct much of the district's financial affairs on Tuesday. From left, school board vice president Carmen Ayala, president LaMont Johnson, Patricia Spleen, David Gates and Regina Armstrong, acting superintendent of schools. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hempstead school board members Tuesday excoriated proposed legislation, under consideration in the final days of the state legislative session, that would install a state-appointed monitor to oversee the district's finances and education policies.

School district president LaMont Johnson said the bill, introduced Sunday by state Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) and Assemb. Taylor Raynor (D-Hempstead), was unnecessary as the district had shown steady progress in student performance.

Johnson criticized the lawmakers at a news conference in Hempstead for introducing the measure "under a veil of secrecy."

"This is not the time for the state to come in and pretend like they are helping the district," Johnson said as he was surrounded by more than 100 parents and district staff.

Board members and district advocates plan to travel to Albany Wednesday — the final day of the state legislative session — to lobby against the measure.

"This is not supporting student success," said board member Randy Stith. "This is supporting your own agenda."

Board members spent much of the 20-minute news conference criticizing the assembled media for failing to report on the district's successes but each refused to answer questions about the proposed legislation or the district's issues.

Thomas acknowledged that the Hempstead school district has shown some improvement but argued that the board continues to be wrought by infighting and petty disputes that fail to make the district's 6,600 students a priority.

"We are not cutting the board off at the knees," Thomas said. "We are not removing the school board. But this district is in danger of going back to where we were decades earlier if we don't start putting students first."

The three-member oversight board would become nonvoting members of the school board, reviewing and approving the proposed budget and fiscal plan; approving or rejecting contracts; expenditures and travel, the bill states.

The oversight panel would also be tasked with developing programmatic recommendations to improve academic performance, approving the hire of future district superintendents and adopting a conflict-of-interest policy for school board members.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia would appoint two oversight members with the third selected by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Their salaries will be paid by the state.

The oversight members cannot be residents, relatives or employees of the district and should have experience in school district finances, the legislation states. The bill would go into effect immediately and expires June 30, 2024.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties on the Regents panel, said the school board is in "constant disarray" and needs an independent monitor to make better fiscal, education and policy choices.

"This is essentially a timeout period for the board where the oversight monitor can come in and stabilize the district," Tilles said.

An Education Department spokeswoman said the office does not comment on pending legislation.

Hempstead, the largest K-12 system in Nassau County, has struggled for decades with low academic performance.

New York State has cited Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School for chronically low academic performance. But graduation rates have improved in recent years and three district elementary schools have been removed from the Education Department's list of low-performing schools.

"We have overcome unfunded mandates and continue to make progress in the face of less resources," said school board vice president Carmen Ayala. "We need to work together and bury the past; learn from it and understand that we are here and will continue to put students first."

Since October 2017, Hempstead has been under the watch of state-appointed "distinguished educator" Jack Bierwirth, a former superintendent with years of experience in school administration. 

Bierwirth has produced a series of reports which credit the district for “substantial progress,” including improved student state test scores and graduation rates, more accurate budget practices, and addressing long-standing issues with facilities. But he has also criticized the school board for inconsistent governance, poor academic performance and accounting irregularities.

Raynor contends Bierwirth's recommendations have been largely ignored and that the proposed oversight board would have more teeth and greater enforcement mechanisms. Bierwirth's appointment expires in September.

"Top-down issues require top-up solutions," Raynor said. "And that’s what we are doing right now."

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