The state-appointed special adviser to the Hempstead school district, in his third quarterly report to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, said the struggling system has made “significant and real progress” but cautioned it has “substantial issues” to overcome.
Jack Bierwirth wrote that he is optimistic about what district officials and the school board have done so far.
“Critical areas must continue to receive a high level of attention and efforts must be sustained until problems have been fully and permanently resolved,” he said in the eight-page document. “The challenges are significant, but they are doable.”
The veteran former school superintendent’s report, dated July 20, covers April, May and June. Elia in September named Bierwirth to examine Hempstead schools across all fronts, and his assessments are broken into 10 specific areas, including the district’s governance, academics, finances and security.
In previous reports, Bierwirth flagged deep divides and infighting among the five board trustees as one of the most significant challenges facing the 8,000-plus student district.
Although the months before the May 15 budget vote and school board election and the six weeks following that were “ugly,” he noted, the district’s voters approved the approximately $215 million budget for 2018-19 and a $46.8 million bond issue to demolish and replace the long-shuttered Marguerite G. Rhodes School.
Voters ousted board president Maribel Touré and vice president Gwendolyn Jackson, who made up a minority bloc on the panel, in favor of newcomers Carmen Ayala and Patricia Spleen.
Since they took office earlier this month, the board — with incumbents David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith, who previously made up the board majority — “seems cohesive and focused on fulfilling its motto of ‘students first,’ “ Bierwirth wrote.
For example, the board agreed to have all five members serve as the audit committee, and plans to meet with the three firms auditing the district a minimum of twice a year, according to the report.
“As board president, I am proud of the work that has been completed to date and the ongoing commitment to our staff and students to achieve a school system that provides a safe educational environment, which encourages physical, emotional and academic growth in a culturally diverse society,” Johnson, the board president, said in an emailed statement. “We will continue to work every single day to make sure we provide a top-notch education and safe learning environment for our students, as well as staff.”
In his report, Bierwirth also noted a “genuine desire” from board members to conclude legal issues that have plagued the district and where appropriate turn over matters to the Nassau County district attorney’s office. Bierwirth did not go into detail on the legal matters, but wrote, “It is likely that the Board and the District will have to deal with major legal issues for much of the next several months.”
In January, the board, in a divided vote, placed Superintendent Shimon Waronker on administrative leave, and the sidelined administrator filed a lawsuit in federal court against the board and the district challenging that action. Waronker, hired at a base salary of $265,000 in May 2017, remains on paid administrative leave through July 31.
Bierwirth noted in his report that it’s a “stretch” having Regina Armstrong working as acting superintendent while continuing as associate superintendent for elementary curriculum and instruction. The district also needs to hire a permanent, full-time business official so it can continue to move forward, he said.
According to the report, the district has made improvements in a number of areas. It put in place standardized procedures and policies regarding purchase orders, and reconfigured its budget to be more accurate. The district’s elementary schools and middle school also applied for the International Baccalaureate Primary Years and Middle Years programs, Bierwirth wrote, becoming the first system on the Island, public or private, to move toward implementing the IB Primary Years program.
The integrity of student data continues to be an issue. The district still is cleaning up enrollment data after about 300 students were dis-enrolled in late November and early December, some of them improperly, according to the report.
Bierwirth’s next report is expected to be filed in mid-October.
“It’s important to know where you’re starting from and you’ve got to know where you’re ending, and you measure along the way to make sure you’re moving in that direction,” Armstrong said in an emailed statement. “It’s not an easy job, but I hope that the recent report shows that I am up for the task and I appreciate the vision and leadership of our new Board of Education.”