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State official: Ousted Hempstead schools chief can't be reinstated

Former Hempstead schools superintendent Shimon Waronker.

Former Hempstead schools superintendent Shimon Waronker.   Credit: Steve Pfost

The state’s acting education commissioner has rejected on procedural grounds a request by former Hempstead schools Superintendent Shimon Waronker to overturn his termination by the district.

Beth Berlin, the then-interim commissioner of education, said in a Nov. 15 decision that she could not lift the school district’s June resolution declaring vacant Waronker's position — effectively firing him — because he had not properly “verified” his application requesting reinstatement.

“The petition must, however, be dismissed for lack of verification,” she wrote in a six-page document in which she cited previous education department decisions, adding that while an appeal of Waronker's termination had been filed with her office in the proper time frame, it lacked an “oath of at least one of the petitioners.”

Further, Berlin wrote: “Here, petitioner did not verify the petition. Rather, the verification is signed by petitioner’s counsel. Petitioner’s counsel is not a petitioner in this appeal; therefore, his verification is improper, and the appeal must be dismissed.”

Berlin signed the document on her last day in office. She was replaced by Shannon Tahoe, whose appointment as acting commissioner of education was effective Nov. 16.

The basis for the decision, which does not consider the merits of Waronker’s appeal of his termination, mirrors somewhat the reason the school district moved in June to vacate his position on grounds he never took an oath of office.

Waronker, who had occupied the $265,000-a-year post since June 2017, still has another appeal pending before a state hearing officer. That appeal, in which Waronker challenged the lawfulness of the board's decision to fire him, was suspended in August pending the outcome of the appeal to the education commissioner.

Waronker's attorney, Frederick K. Brewington of Hempstead, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

 Jonathan Scher, an attorney for the school district, said the decision showed the board's actions were valid.

"This NYSED decision confirms that the District was indeed correct, and that the office of position that Waronker held became vacant per the [board of education's] June 13, 2019 resolution as Waronker failed to take the required oath of office," Scher said in a statement. "Needless to say, the District is excited to finally close the Waronker chapter for Hempstead Schools once and for all. Now the district can continue in its mission to ensure long term progress and success for its most precious asset, the students, without distraction. It is truly a new day."

Berlin's decision came just one month after a federal appeals court ruled against Waronker's lawsuit challenging the board's January 2018 vote to place him on paid leave.

In that litigation before a Manhattan court, Waronker argued that his right to freedom of speech was violated when he was suspended after he wrote a letter publicly accusing the five-member school board of corruption.

The Jan. 5, 2018 letter, which was posted on the district’s website, was followed by a Jan. 9 school board vote to remove him. The letter served as a key part of Waronker’s appeal to the Albany-based Berlin.

While Berlin did not address the denial of Waronker's free speech accusation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit previously ruled he spoke as an employee of the district. The federal justices determined his First Amendment rights had not been violated since, in many cases, employers may legally retaliate against employees for speaking out against an employer.

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