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Adviser's 1-year review: LI district makes headway, faces hurdles

Jack Bierwirth, the state-appointed special adviser to the

Jack Bierwirth, the state-appointed special adviser to the Hempstead school district, on Sept. 27. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The Hempstead school district has many hurdles to clear, though some operations are closer to being “normal” after a year of intensive work, the state-appointed adviser to the chronically troubled district said in his annual review.

Jack Bierwirth, working under a broad mandate from state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, wrote that the 8,000-student district continues to struggle with inconsistent governance, academic performance that is among the lowest in the state, expired labor contracts and accounting irregularities.

The district has made “substantial progress” in some areas, the veteran administrator wrote in the document, released Friday by the state Education Department.

"There are times this year when I despaired whether the District could, in fact, turn itself around," Bierwirth wrote in the 15-page report's conclusion. "Disputes between adults and the resulting diversion of time, energy, resources and attention away from improving the District for the benefit of the students presented a major obstacle. Many of the effects of those previous obstacles are still present.

“I am pleased that the progress has continued in the fourth quarter,” Bierwirth said. “The long-term challenge is to ensure that the pace of progress is sustained and that the changes are permanent and lasting.”

Strides have been made in improved student scores on state tests and in the graduation rate, which rose from 37 percent in 2017 to approximately 51 percent in 2018, Bierwirth wrote. More academic opportunities, such as Advanced Placement courses, are being offered, more accurate financial and budget practices are being put in place, and long-standing issues with facilities are being addressed. 

The five-member school board and district need to put all progress on a “firm and lasting footing” so Hempstead’s students are not at risk of having their schools regress, Bierwirth said.

Elia, in an emailed statement, called the progress demonstrated in the report “encouraging” and stressed the importance of continued collaboration. “While the District has come a long way in just 15 months, much work remains to drive further improvements and ensure these changes are permanent and have a lasting impact,” she said. 

Hempstead Acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong gave the assurance that district administrators, board trustees and staff are committed to "work collaboratively to strengthen all areas that need improvement. We further recognize it will take fidelity and consistency to guarantee our efforts are impactful and sustainable."

The district celebrates the positive report and recognition of its efforts, she said in an emailed statement.

Bierwirth’s report highlights the board’s commitment to the motto: “students first,” is stronger than ever, President LaMont Johnson wrote in an email.

“I recognize that this is challenging and difficult work, but my goal is to bring all students up to achievement which meets their full potential," Johnson said. “The District's students are the future of our community, and every policy we adopt and every decision we make is with the sole focus of doing everything we can to provide them with the best education possible."

Bierwirth, 71, whose education career spans nearly five decades, assumed the position of "Distinguished Educator" in the district in October 2017, working with the board and administrators to review systems and develop and roll out plans for better student performance. He has filed quarterly reports to Elia, who in October extended his appointment for the 2018-19 school year.

In the report, he described an often chaotic time marked by bills going unpaid, changes in leadership, a state investigation into students being disenrolled, and what he termed “adult conflicts.”

“During the course of the past year, I have developed a great appreciation for the word ‘normal,’” Bierwirth wrote. “I mean ‘normal’ in the sense that one has a reasonable expectation that things that should be done are highly likely to be done unless something unusual happens.” 

Too many functions of the district have not been "normal," he wrote, and have “required attention beyond what one would expect. Extra levels of time, energy, attention, and resources are needed to ensure that these issues are properly and completely addressed.”

The district, the largest K-12 system in Nassau County, has struggled for decades with low academic performance, financial mismanagement and infighting and turnover on the school board. Seventy percent of its students are classified by the state as economically disadvantaged and 39 percent as English language learners, according to data for 2016-17, the most recent available on the Education Department’s website. 

Hempstead in 2017 had the lowest high school graduation rate on Long Island and one of the lowest in the state, with 219 students receiving diplomas out of a class of 596, or 37 percent.

The special adviser’s report noted progress in students’ performance.

The graduation rate for students who graduated in June and August 2018 still is being verified, but likely will be 51 percent, Bierwirth wrote. 

Test scores on the state English Language Arts and math tests taken by students in grades three through eight also showed improvement. Twenty-four percent of students were proficient on the ELA last spring, up from 17 percent in 2017, and 22 percent were proficient in math, up from 18 percent in 2017, according to state data.

The district is in the process of implementing the International Baccalaureate Primary Years and Middle Years programs, which take several years to build up and become authorized. If the IB programs are instituted, they will bring a “level of rigor, coherence, and continuity to all grades,” Bierwirth wrote. 

The annual report described how veteran educators and Nassau BOCES helped the district put in place systems and methods for better financial practices, more accurate budget reports and cleaning up of student data.

The district also is implementing recommendations from previous audits, and an ongoing forensic audit is drawing to a close, Bierwirth wrote.

One of the big challenges ahead is labor negotiations, he said. Members of five different unions have been working for years under expired contracts. The oldest of those are contracts with the Hempstead School Administrators Association, which expired in June 2012, and the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, which expired in June 2013.

The district also has a large amount of outstanding litigation, including a federal lawsuit brought by Superintendent Shimon Waronker, who has been on paid administrative leave since January. The district is investigating accusations of mismanagement during his administration, allegations that he has denied.

Bierwirth’s report noted the double role that Armstrong continues to fill, serving as acting superintendent along with her prior role of associate superintendent for elementary curriculum and instruction. The district also must fill the position of assistant superintendent of business.

The special adviser is paid by the district as a consultant. Bierwirth said in an email that he was paid $230,293 from October 2017 through October, not including mileage and toll expenses. State records show his annual pension from the New York State Teachers' Retirement System is $192,151.

Each of Bierwirth's four reports to Elia addresses 10 subject areas: governance, budget and fiscal operations, school safety and security, facilities, high school instruction, prekindergarten to eighth-grade instruction, special education, English language learners, the nutrition program and information technology. 

Overall, Bierwirth has said it will take five to 10 years to turn around the district, a point he reiterated in the annual review.

“Some areas will take more time, some less, but ... reaching levels that one would define as ‘success’ requires sustained effort and disciplined rigorous focus, particularly on the part of the Hempstead Board of Education and District Leadership,” he wrote.

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