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Lawyer for schools chief criticizes Hempstead board’s action

Attorney says putting Superintendent Shimon Waronker on administrative leave is punitive and “suspension by another name is still suspension.”

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker, center, at the school

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker, center, at the school board's special meeting on Tuesday evening, Jan. 9, 2018. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The attorney for Hempstead’s embattled schools chief Shimon Waronker on Wednesday challenged the legitimacy of the decision by three board trustees to place the superintendent on administrative leave, saying Waronker was a victim of “mob mentality.”

Waronker, who took over Hempstead’s system in early June, was shelved late Tuesday night in a 3-2 vote. The action came following a raucous meeting punctuated by jeers directed at the superintendent — demonstrations that often drowned out his attempts to defend his administration and that district authorities made no concerted effort to stop.

Frederick Brewington, a Hempstead attorney representing the superintendent, said his client will not “buy into the mob-like mentality of trying to match the level of discord and abuse.”

“I understand they were singing, ‘Hit the road, Jack, don’t you come back no more no more,’ ” Brewington said, referring to the famous tune that a spectator played on the piano at the end of the meeting in Hempstead High School auditorium, with other audience members joining in song.

“This is supposed to be the highest level of decision-making to benefit the educational future of children,” the lawyer said. “It is not a pep rally for a basketball game.”

Brewington declined to predict whether the schools chief would file a lawsuit against the district’s board majority. He did say, however, that administrative leave in this case was a punitive act that “will be tested in the proper forum.”

The board has another meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the high school auditorium.

Brewington is not alone in his critical assessment of Hempstead board meetings. A state-appointed special adviser to the district, Jack Bierwirth, a former superintendent on Long Island, found in a wide-ranging report released Monday that the sessions often are “long and rancorous,” reflecting deep divisions and “an inability to collaborate on even commonly shared concerns.”

Trustees David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith hold the current balance of power and voted to place Waronker on administrative leave. Board president Maribel Touré and vice president Gwendolyn Jackson voted against the action.

Waronker, under conditions set by the board’s three-member majority, will be barred from school property and not allowed to participate in operations of the 8,000-student district. He will continue receiving full pay and benefits.

Brewington’s contention that the board’s action was essentially punitive is a point that could become crucial in any legal action. Waronker’s four-year, $265,000-a-year contract provides that he will not be suspended, disciplined or fired without the right to an impartial hearing.

“They call it administrative leave, but suspension by another name is still suspension,” Brewington said.

Over the weekend, Waronker posted an extraordinary “open letter” to residents on the district’s website, describing reforms he had sought to implement and saying the board majority had derailed his efforts to root out corruption, mismanagement and waste.

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

The letter remained on the website through Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, it no longer appeared.

Tuesday night, many audience members cheered when they learned that Regina Armstrong, the district’s associate superintendent for elementary curriculum and instruction, was being named acting superintendent in Waronker’s absence. Armstrong, 50, has worked for 28 years in Hempstead as a teacher, curriculum specialist and administrator.

Armstrong told Newsday in a phone interview Wednesday that her first order of business would be carrying out Bierwirth’s recommendations, which are supported by the state, for comprehensive planning to improve the district’s academic performance, student security and physical plant.

“The focus is going to be on the students, and we’re going to continue to put systems in place that will improve the learning environment,” she said.

Some residents contended this week that public expressions of exasperation with the superintendent were justified.

Waronker previously won high marks for turning around troubled schools in New York City, but his Hempstead tenure has been marked by complaints that he acted too quickly in replacing popular administrators with candidates of his own choosing.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m glad — I’m overjoyed — the superintendent is gone,” said Cheryl Wyche, a Hempstead resident at the board meeting. “Far as people singing, we have freedom of speech.”

Leslie McShine, president of a civic activist group, Hempstead for Hempstead, agreed.

“Enough is enough,” McShine said.

Wyche and McShine are among those who regularly go to the panel’s meetings and in the past have filed petitions to the state education commissioner on various matters, including the outcome of board elections.

Parents interviewed Wednesday afternoon outside Barack Obama Elementary School said they knew little or nothing of the controversy over Waronker’s tenure. But many expressed concern about the same issues of building maintenance and student security detailed in Bierwirth’s report.

Rina Nunez, 42, who has sons there in the first and fourth grades, voiced frustration about the district. “It’s not secure,” she said. “A lot of things going on.”

She had concerns about drug sales outside one school and said she was worried about Monday’s closure of Obama Elementary because of a burst water pipe and lack of heat during frigid weather.

When asked about the drama and bitterness on the school board, she said: “All I care about is my son having the right education.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Maria Cortez, 35, who has sons in the 10th grade at Hempstead High and the first grade at Obama Elementary, and a daughter in prekindergarten.

The district is “not good,” she said. Her 10th-grader, who has special needs, “said he didn’t want to go to school” and complaints of gang activity and bullying. “I think they need to change personnel,” she said.

With Scott Eidler

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