State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Thursday appointed veteran administrator Jack Bierwirth as a “distinguished educator” for the Hempstead school district, a highly unusual move to bolster efforts to turn around the chronically troubled system.
The 8,300-student district has been plagued by low academic performance — it has the lowest graduation rate among Long Island’s public school systems — as well as financial mismanagement and political division and turnover on the school board.
Bierwirth, 70, is only the second person tapped for such a position since its creation under a 2007 state law. He is empowered to develop and roll out improvement plans for student achievement and conduct an intensive review of district systems, structures and operations.
“For far too many years, the Hempstead School District has struggled to address a myriad of issues relating to school governance and instruction that have created impediments to student learning,” Elia said in a statement.
Bierwirth will answer to the Education Department and is expected to begin in the post Oct. 6. The district is to pay him as a consultant and he will be a non-voting, ex-officio school board member, officials said.
Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker said the compensation has not been determined.
“I am honored,” Bierwirth, who previously served as superintendent in the Freeport, Sachem and Herricks districts, said in a text message.
The Education Department pinpointed several problems, including Hempstead’s designation for the past five years as a “focus district” because of low academic performance, and a “district in need of intervention” since the 2011-12 school year because of issues of compliance with special education laws and the low academic performance of students with disabilities.
Department officials also acknowledged Thursday that the agency, in a review in January, found “an excessive reliance on using online courses” as a way for high school students to earn credits. The department noted that students may have been permitted to receive credits in classes where they “were excessively absent,” a factor that raises “questions as to whether students completed the required coursework.”
The agency did not provide any further details on the review.
Waronker — a self-styled education reformer who took office in June — heralded the appointment.
“I welcome the distinguished educator Dr. Jack Bierwirth to work with us to help improve the outcomes of our students in Hempstead,” he said in an interview. “I think he brings a wealth of experience and wisdom and history.”
The only other time a distinguished educator was appointed to a district came in 2012, when Judy Elliot was named to the Buffalo system, the Education Department said.
Elliot, in an interview, said she was responsible for filing data-driven quarterly reports to the commissioner on the district’s implementation of an action plan.
“With a distinguished educator on board, Hempstead will have some much-needed assistance in developing and implementing plans to carry out its responsibilities to ensure every child in the district receives the education they deserve,” Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said. “Dr. Bierwirth has the knowledge, experience and skill to be a meaningful partner with the school board and district for the benefit of all children in the district’s low-performing schools.”
“We need help,” Hempstead school board president Maribel Touré said in an interview, adding she had a “mixed reaction” to the appointment. “We were expecting that we could do it on our own.”
“Obviously, we need more improvement and the state’s considering we need extra help, so we are getting extra help,” she said.
The Education Department noted that Hempstead is one of only two districts statewide, outside of the five large city school districts, with one or more schools in the state’s receivership program. Those schools — Hempstead High School and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School — must show “demonstrable improvement” was made during the 2016-17 academic year or risk the appointment of a state-approved monitor to oversee the schools. That determination is expected to be made in October.
It also is one of four school districts in the state to be reviewed as part of a federal audit for longstanding noncompliance with special education laws.
The commissioner’s action came two days after the NYPD arrested a Hempstead High School theater teacher on a charge of grand larceny in connection with the theft of more than $140,000 worth of computers purchased by the district.
Bierwirth, who retired in 2014 after serving as Herricks schools chief, has a 48-year record as an educator. In addition to his past stints as superintendent, he served as a district director with Hempstead public schools from 1974 to 1977. His annual pension from the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System is $192,151, records show.
Regent Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the panel, hailed the move.
“I’m very pleased with it, because I think Jack has exactly the experience that Hempstead needs,” Tilles said. He added that he often has relied on Bierwirth as a “mentor” on issues such as testing and school administration.
Robert Dillon, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, said he has had conversations with Elia about the district’s troubles.
“It’s a highly unusual action for a highly unusual district. So many things have been tried in the past. Unfortunately, they haven’t been successful,” Dillon said. “Now, the commissioner is stepping up to the plate and saying it’s time to get something done.”
With John Hildebrand
The “distinguished educator” was established under state law in 2007 and implemented in the Education Department’s regulations in 2011.
- Conduct an intensive review of systems, structures, facilities, and operations in the district and develop an action plan.
- Help to develop or implement a district improvement plan and steps for corrective action or restructuring.
- Assess the learning environments of district schools.
- Promote student performance.
- Recommend improvements related to the administrative and operational spheres.
Term in Hempstead district: One-year beginning Oct. 6. Can be renewed annually.
Pay: School officials say compensation has not been determined. State law says that “consulting fees shall mean reasonable and necessary wage compensation.”
— Scott Eidler