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Hempstead school board takes action against superintendent

The Hempstead school board at a special meeting,

The Hempstead school board at a special meeting, along with attorneys and the district clerk, on Tuesday morning. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Hempstead school board voted unanimously Tuesday to take steps toward seeking Superintendent Shimon Waronker's dismissal, the latest twist in a monthslong saga that has embroiled the district in controversy and prompted a federal lawsuit by the sidelined educator.

The five-member board's allegations were not immediately released. Waronker has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 9 as the panel investigates its accusations of mismanagement during his brief time as schools chief. Regina Armstrong, a longtime administrator in the system, is serving as acting superintendent.

Waronker came to Hempstead with a reputation for turning around low-performing and violent schools in New York City. He started work in the district on June 2, 2017, under a four-year contract paying $265,000 annually in base salary plus benefits. His contract requires, among other stipulations, that he receive the board's charges in writing within two days of Tuesday's vote and that he has the right to a hearing.

Frederick K. Brewington, the Hempstead-based attorney for Waronker, said his client had not received the board's charges by Tuesday evening.

“We have been informed that the Board of Education has voted to issue charges and specifications against Dr. Waronker. Unfortunately, our requests to the District’s lawyers for a copy of the charges has not been responded to,” Brewington said in a statement to Newsday.

In an email to a law firm representing the district, he asked that the charges and specifications be sent. “This is unacceptable and not fair to Mr. Waronker, who has [the] right to know immediately what charges have been levelled  against him," Brewington wrote.

The state Education Department said it could not comment on personnel matters, including those that could come before Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in an appeal.

Board President LaMont Johnson, Vice President Carmen Ayala, and trustees David Gates and Randy Stith declined to comment after the hastily called meeting, and trustee Patricia Spleen left without speaking to a reporter.

The trustees, who began the meeting at about 8:30 a.m., took the action after roughly an hour in executive session, behind closed doors in the small board room at Hempstead High School.

The board has been probing Waronker's actions in arranging a $450,000 contract between the district and the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit consulting agency he founded, according to the resolution the panel passed in January placing him on leave.

After its private session, the trustees voted 5-0 to approve a resolution that it had reviewed "documentary evidence gathered in the investigation of the matters" and "found substantial and credible evidence to support the charges and specifications."

The vote was rapid: About two minutes passed as District Clerk Patricia Wright read the resolution aloud and the unanimous result was recorded. No members of the public were present.

Nicole Epstein of Gotham Government Relations and Communications, the media relations firm representing the district, said she could not comment on personnel matters.

Waronker, in a federal lawsuit challenging his removal from district operations, said he brought in New American Initiative with the support of the district's former three-member board majority — who hired him in spring 2017 — as one of several measures to help turn around the long-troubled system of  8,000-plus students. His contract specifically bans his drawing compensation from the agency, a point that Waronker has made publicly and in court papers.

An official with the New York State Council of School Superintendents said the board's action Tuesday was highly unusual.

"It's exceedingly rare for a board to actually bring charges under the contract,” said Greg Berck, the council’s assistant director for governmental relations and assistant counsel. Nearly all superintendents’ contracts in New York — about 95 percent — include the provision of some sort of hearing or due process, he said.

The council does not have statistics, Berck said, but generally has found that if a superintendent leaves the job or chooses to retire before his or her contract ends, the administrator and school board part ways via a separation agreement.

The district, the largest K-12 system in Nassau County, has been consistently flagged by the state for low academic performance; beset by rapid turnover among its administrators, high legal costs and deteriorating buildings; and marked by infighting and factionalism on the school board. It faces significant challenges, with 70 percent of its students 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 has been under ramped-up state scrutiny since last fall. Elia appointed a special adviser, veteran former school superintendent Jack Bierwirth, to put all operations under a magnifying glass and report back to her.

Bierwirth began working in the district in October, when Waronker had been schools chief for about four months. Elia in January ordered the district to adhere to Bierwirth’s wide-ranging recommendations, and the system is in the midst of implementing a response plan.

Waronker, a Harvard-educated administrator who is a proponent of reforms to traditional methods of education, was hired by the board’s former three-member majority in May 2017. He started in June, with a contract running through June 30, 2021.

He was criticized by some residents and district workers for hiring extra staff at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and for arranging the district's contract with New American Initiative. Waronker said his efforts were squarely aimed at the good of the district and its students, rectifying mismanagement and rooting out waste and malfeasance.

The schools chief was placed on paid administrative leave after the board’s balance of power shifted to a new majority — Gates, Johnson and Stith.

Waronker on Jan.19 filed suit in federal court against the district regarding his placement on leave and vowed to bring out proof of corruption in the system. A federal judge in Central Islip on Jan. 30 rejected Waronker’s request for a temporary injunction, which would have allowed him to return to work, and noted that Waronker continues to receive pay and benefits.

A status conference is scheduled for Dec. 24 in federal court, according to the most recent filing.

Waronker remained a flashpoint for the divided board until July 2, when the newest trustees, Ayala and Spleen, were sworn in. Elected in May, they replaced board President Maribel Touré and Vice President Gwendolyn Jackson, who were in the majority when Waronker was hired.

On July 27, the board unanimously voted to extend his administrative leave, which was set to end July 31, through Aug. 31.

Tuesday's action toward his termination came after several executive sessions held by the board over the past two weeks. The panel met behind closed doors for more than two-and-a-half hours Monday night to review and discuss in-depth the accusations against Waronker, as well as the documents in support of the charges, according to Gotham.

The board had to navigate Waronker's extensive contract, which includes a section titled “Termination,” and states that he can only be terminated following a “fair hearing before an impartial hearing officer.”

He must be served with charges within two days of the board’s vote and has the right to select a public or private hearing, according to the contract.

In addition, Waronker is entitled under the agreement to receive his salary and benefits during the course of the hearing and any appeal.

Ultimately, if terminated, the contract says he must be paid in full all compensation and benefits within 15 days. A clause in the document requires the district, upon termination, to pay 1/240th per day of the then-current annual salary for up to 200 accumulated vacation days, as well as 1/240th per day of that amount for up to 100 accumulated personal leave days.

Waronker’s contract also provides for a raise of between 1 percent and 5 percent on July 1. A spokeswoman for the district said he had not received a raise as of July 31.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday how Waronker’s dismissal may affect the ongoing legal battle.

Bierwirth, in a July 20 report to Elia, called the status of Waronker a “significant challenge” for the district. He also warned of a number of “very substantial issues which are or may become part of litigation or which are or may become matters before the District Attorney,” but did not go into detail on those issues.

What's next?

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker’s 14-page contract, signed May 11, 2017, lays out these requirements if the school board acts to remove him:

  • He must be served with the charges in writing within two days of the board’s vote.
  • A hearing officer must be mutually selected by him and by the board within five days of Waronker’s receipt of the charges.
  • He has the right to choose whether the hearing is public or private.
  • There must be a minimum of 30 days between the receipt of the charges and the start of the hearing.

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