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Hempstead superintendent challenges school board majority

Hempstead schools Superintendent Shimon Waronker, seen here on

Hempstead schools Superintendent Shimon Waronker, seen here on Dec. 22, 2017. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The New York City educator brought into the Hempstead district seven months ago to turn around Long Island’s most troubled system is going public with accusations that the school board’s majority has derailed his academic reforms and efforts to root out corruption, mismanagement and waste.

Superintendent Shimon Waronker, in an extraordinary “open letter” posted over the weekend on the district’s website, appeals directly to Hempstead residents for support in his drive to overhaul the 8,000-student system — the largest serving kindergartners through 12th-graders in Nassau County.

“Politics, self-interests, patronage, vendettas, threats, and cover-ups cannot rule the day,” Waronker writes in the two-page letter to the Hempstead community, dated Jan. 5. “The transformation which is necessary in Hempstead will not happen without hard work, transparency, honesty and commitment to meaningful change.”

Newsday obtained an advance copy of the letter.

The superintendent, in a detailed list, wrote that majority board members jettisoned instructors he brought in, thwarted plans to upgrade training of administrators and teachers, fired investigators hired to look into possible corruption, and blocked his push for a bond issue to rebuild a derelict, closed school and make other infrastructure improvements.

One trustee in the majority, LaMont Johnson, objected to Waronker’s suggestion that the board’s position on the rebuilding plan was an attempt to undermine the superintendent’s entire agenda, saying in a phone interview Friday that he favors it but in a different time frame.

Two other majority trustees, David Gates and Randy Stith, did not respond Friday to Newsday’s inquiry regarding the letter.

Waronker took office as superintendent on June 2 amid mounting pressures from the state Education Department to salvage a district that has languished academically for years and has been marked by political feuds among board members, charges of irregularities and voter fraud in elections, and loud, contentious demonstrations by some residents at board meetings.

Among the superintendent’s primary tasks is raising abysmal academic performance. Hempstead has one of the lowest graduation rates among Long Island’s 124 districts — 47.7 percent of high school seniors graduated on time in 2016, according to the state’s most recent available figures. Student test scores are at or near the bottom for the region, and both the high school and middle school are on a state list of underperforming schools.

Before his arrival in Hempstead, Waronker gained a reputation for improving dangerous and struggling public schools in New York City, as well as reforming traditional models of education through intensive team teaching and low classroom student-to-teacher ratios.

During his first weeks in Hempstead, however, the new superintendent drew objections from some community residents and others for what they described as his abrupt manner in replacing school administrators with candidates of his own choosing.

Protest mounted when Waronker arranged for a $450,000 contract between the Hempstead district and a Brooklyn-based consulting agency, New American Initiative, which he had founded in 2013.

Waronker said he got no compensation from the arrangement and needed help from the agency in implementing his education model. His contract with Hempstead schools, of which Newsday has a copy, specifies that he may not receive any payment from that firm, among others, to avoid possible conflict of interest.

In September, the Education Department appointed a veteran Long Island superintendent, Jack Bierwirth, to serve as a special liaison to the district — a posting known as “distinguished educator.” This is only the second time in the state’s history that such a representative has been inserted into a local district to serve as a consultant and to issue periodic progress reports.

A department spokesman said Friday that the release of Bierwirth’s first report is expected soon.

Waronker’s letter — highly frank in its tone, compared with most correspondence between suburban school leaders and their constituents — does not criticize any of the district’s five board trustees by name. But it does cite the three-member majority, which took control in November, contending that those trustees “effectively pulled the rug from under me.”

In one example, Waronker mentions his push for a quick voter referendum in February on a $46.8 million bond issue, aimed at relieving school overcrowding, getting rid of old portable classrooms used by about 1,500 students daily, and rebuilding the shuttered Marguerite G. Rhodes School.

At the board’s Dec. 7 meeting, the majority trio of Gates, Johnson and Stith rejected the plan, saying it was too rushed and the district needed time to gather detailed figures on the cost to local taxpayers. Board president Maribel Touré and trustee Gwendolyn Jackson supported the superintendent’s idea.

Johnson, in the interview Friday, said he is willing to negotiate details with Waronker and trustees. He said he favors holding a referendum in May, at the same time residents vote on the district’s annual operating budget. That would encourage larger voter turnout, he said, and also give the district time to analyze reconstruction costs.

“The Rhodes School will be rebuilt,” Johnson said. “All five board members are agreed that rebuilding is necessary. We have to relieve overcrowding.”

Waronker’s letter also blasts the majority’s decision on Dec. 21 to cancel the district’s $450,000 contract with New American Initiative and to fire four “expert teachers” that the schools chief had hired to provide training for other district faculty. Waronker said the newly hired staffers were on the verge of completing an application for a $5.4 million grant.

“These hard-working teachers were let go right before the holidays!” the superintendent wrote.

Stith, in an interview last week, contended that the money “could better be spent elsewhere” — for example, on school building maintenance. The point was underscored on Wednesday, when three Hempstead schools were shut down for a day in advance of Thursday’s snowstorm because of a variety of structural defects — broken toilets, ruptured water pipes and inadequate heating.

Stith’s remarks came during an interview with a Newsday reporter at a board meeting on Wednesday.

Among the signs of brewing confrontation between Waronker and the board majority is a push by Gates, Johnson and Stith for increased powers giving them more leverage over district employees — including the superintendent, who is hired by and answers to the board.

A resolution currently under consideration would allow the board to place selected administrators and other employees on paid leave for periods of up to 60 days at a time. Administrators assigned to such leave would be barred from entering school buildings and carrying out their normal duties.

A final board vote on that resolution could come as soon as this week.

Frederick Brewington, a Hempstead attorney retained by Waronker to represent him in his dealings with the board, told Newsday on Friday that his client considers himself a target of the resolution, though the document does not name any specific school officials.

“I think Dr. Waronker is clear that the only reason to go through this [resolution] process is to silence him and derail the positive changes that have been made in this district,” Brewington said.

Were the board to seek Waronker’s removal, it likely would come at a hefty financial cost to the district.

Waronker’s four-year contract, which expires June 30, 2021, provides an annual base salary of $265,000, plus yearly raises, as well as insurance benefits, vacation and other paid time off. The contract also calls for an independent hearing officer to rule on any attempt by board trustees to discipline or oust the superintendent.

Reactions in other quarters to Waronker’s letter were mixed.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties on the state Board of Regents, said he would wait to review Bierwirth’s report before judging the merits of the conflicting arguments put forward by the superintendent and trustees in the majority.

“I know that there are many sides to this story,” said Tilles, whose board sets educational policy and oversees operations of the state Education Department. “I’m waiting to hear other considerations, especially from someone as experienced as Jack Bierwirth.”

Touré, on the other hand, reiterated her strong support for Waronker, whom she helped hire before board control shifted to a new majority. While Touré has retained her title as board president since the power shift, she has been consistently outvoted.

“I completely support him, and he really needs the backup of the board to fix the district,” she said in a phone interview Friday.

Betsy Leibu, president of Hempstead’s teacher union, agreed with Waronker’s assertion in the letter that he moved effectively in launching a detailed forensic audit of Hempstead’s spending practices.

The initiative had been discussed in the district for more than a year before the new superintendent’s arrival. Earlier attempts to review the district’s books suffered a setback last January, when a fire described by officials as deliberately set destroyed financial records stored in the shuttered Rhodes School.

“It wasn’t until Dr. Waronker came in that anything was done about it,” the union president said.

Leibu also agreed with the superintendent’s assertions in a Dec. 21 letter to the community that many Hempstead High School students had been enrolled in advanced courses such as trigonometry and honors English where they were not prepared to succeed. Students who failed algebra were passed along to a more difficult course in geometry, and those who failed geometry were passed along to the still more difficult trigonometry, Waronker found.

“That is a major problem,” said Leibu, whose Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association represents about 500 professional school staffers. “If they fail one course, they just get passed along to the next one. And there’s no remediation to help them.”

Albany’s intervention in Hempstead represents a test of its ability to straighten out troubled districts without a direct takeover.

The state took that step only once — in the Roosevelt district, from 2002 to 2013. The venture cost more than $300 million in extra financial assistance for the district, prompting many state leaders to vow that no such effort would ever be made again.

In 2015, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators took a different tack. They agreed to new legislation authorizing the Education Department to place failing schools under independent receivership — that is, special management — whenever local district administrators fail to make improvements.

The receivership law has limitations. For example, authority to appoint receivers was left in the hands of local school boards, even when such boards bore responsibility for schools’ failure in the first place. The state also allowed sitting superintendents to first act as receivers and attempt to make changes before any outsiders were brought in.

Hempstead is the only district on Long Island with two schools singled out under the receivership law, which must meet certain requirements and deadlines for improvement: Hempstead High School is classified as “persistently struggling,” and Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School as “struggling.”

And in Hempstead’s case, state education officials opted for an additional approach, drawing upon a 2011 law that allows the appointment of “distinguished educators” such as Bierwirth. The only other such appointment in the state was in 2012, in Buffalo.

The powers of such appointees are defined rather vaguely.

Under law, distinguished educators “assess the learning environment” of schools in a designated district, and “provide assistance in the development and implementation of any district improvement plan.” When a distinguished educator and school board disagree on points in an improvement plan, the state education commissioner has the final say.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who appointed Bierwirth, has repeatedly expressed confidence in the ability of the former Herricks superintendent to deal with problems in Hempstead. She did so again Friday, in a statement describing his appointment as “the first step in ensuring Hempstead’s students get the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Alan Singer, a Hofstra University education professor who has tracked the state’s intervention efforts for years, concludes that Albany has basically abdicated responsibility for troubled districts because it doesn’t want the responsibility.

“It looks to me essentially as if a distinguished educator is acting in an advisory capacity,” Singer said. “Other than get people to try to compromise, what authority does he have? I wouldn’t want his job.”

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