New York State's highly publicized intervention in the 7,600-student Hempstead school district ends Wednesday, with the community's political factions bitterly divided over the question of whether Albany should find a fresh approach to monitoring Long Island's most academically challenged school system.
The state's adviser to the district, Jack Bierwirth, a former school superintendent with 50 years' experience in education, is stepping down after serving his allotted two years in Hempstead. Bierwirth, a state appointee with the title "distinguished educator," was the second person tapped for such a position since its creation under state law in 2007.
Over the past two years, and with Bierwirth's help, Hempstead has chalked up several achievements. Graduation rates have risen, school security has improved, and local voters approved a $46.8 million bond issue to raze and replace the district's 108-year-old Marguerite G. Rhodes School.
Hempstead continues to struggle, nonetheless. Take graduation rates. The percentage of students graduating from the district has risen from 39.7% in 2015 to 44.3% in 2018, according to the latest data from the state Education Department. Hempstead officials peg the 2019 figure at around 63%, though the state has not yet confirmed that. Still, that rate would remain at or near the bottom regionally, and well below the state average of more than 80%.
Bierwirth, in a phone interview Monday, voiced hope that Hempstead could reach the state average within the next two years.
"If those students stay on track, and they're on track now, they will meet those figures," said Bierwirth, who added that he had worked with "some really fine educators" in Hempstead over the past two years.
Test scores in the lower grades, while also improving, underline another problem area.
For example, results of state math tests recently released by the department show that 47% of students in grades 3-8 — a total of 1,250 youngsters — scored in the lowest category, known as "Level 1." That failure rate, nearly three times the Nassau County average, means that almost half of Hempstead's students did not demonstrate a basic understanding of math expected at their grade levels.
Local opponents of Hempstead's school board contend the state should continue its surveillance, to ensure the district's remaining problems are addressed. Nearly 130 people, the vast majority Hemstead residents, recently petitioned Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign a bill, already approved by the State Legislature, that would authorize a three-member, state-appointed monitoring board for the district.
"Nothing is going to change unless the state comes in and monitors what they do with the money," said Maribel Toure, a former board trustee and president who was ousted in a 2018 district election. "The governor should make sure he signs the bill, and the monitors should have been here since yesterday. Everybody knows what's going on."
Hempstead's five-member board, on the other hand, issued a joint statement in mid-September arguing that state lawmakers representing their area should have concentrated not on monitoring, but on obtaining more financial assistance for the district.
"We wish our local-elected officials — Assemb. Taylor Darling and State Sen. Kevin Thomas — had focused more on learning about the substance of the district's challenges instead of on legislation that does nothing to help our students," the statement declared in part.
Darling has an office in Hempstead, Thomas in Garden City. Both are Democrats.
Hempstead, like other districts of limited means, leans heavily on the state for funding. The system's taxable wealth, as measured by a state formula combining both property values and personal income, is less than one-third the state average and is the lowest in Nassau County.
For the 2019-20 school year, Hempstead has been allotted $134.5 million in state assistance, equivalent to about 60% of its budget. School officials maintain, however, that their district would qualify for additional money if the state's distribution were based strictly on need — a position supported by some outside financial analysts.
Hempstead's woes took the spotlight in January 2018, after Bierwirth, who had been appointed to his post four months earlier, issued a report listing troubled areas that required repairs: political infighting on the board; deteriorated schools; overcrowded classrooms; gang fights; high failure rates on state exams, and the lowest high school graduation rate on Long Island.
That same week, the state's top two school leaders, Betty Rosa, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and MaryEllen Elia, the education commissioner, visited Hempstead, where they sat down for private talks with each school board member, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. Back in Albany, Cuomo spoke out on the need for intervention.
"If you don't have a real credible immediate plan for correction, then the state should come in and take over the school," the governor declared at a news conference, when asked about Hempstead.
Elia left the department in August for a job with a private consulting company, the Manhattan-based International Center for Leadership in Education. Beth Berlin holds the commissioner's post on an interim basis as the state Board of Regents seeks a permanent replacement.
At the moment, Albany officials are issuing no new pronouncements regarding what's next for Hempstead, even as Bierwirth departs and local classes enter their second month.
Instead, authorities said the legislative bill that would establish a monitoring board for Hempstead is still under negotiation, and that any major decisions affecting the district will be made once negotiations end. The bill, as originally approved by the Legislature in June, would give monitors unusually broad powers in approving or disapproving appointments of local superintendents, as well as expenditures, except those covered by union contracts.
The bill needs Cuomo's signature to become law.
One high-ranking official in the Cuomo administration, who spoke mostly on background, said the education department could extend Bierwirth's term, if it saw fit. This was in response to being asked if oversight would continue as negotiations went on.
A spokesman for the education department, J.P. O'Hare, did not address the possibility of extending Bierwirth's term when asked. O'Hare agreed, though, that negotiations should be concluded before any major new actions are taken.
"After this determination is made, the department will be in a better position to make a decision on appropriate next steps," O'Hare said.
Both O'Hare and a spokesman for the governor's office, Jason Conwall, voiced their best wishes for Hempstead's future, without providing details. Conwall said his office's priority was ensuring Hempstead students receive "the best possible education." O'Hare said his agency remained committed "to continuing our work to ensure stability and a brighter future for the students of Hempstead."
Many authorities, familiar with conditions in Hempstead, worry about a potential lack of oversight.
"We really can't trust what's going on there," Darling said. "The district has been so lost so long, it's dysfunctional."
School board trustees respond that their district remains subject to the same routine academic and financial oversight the state provides other districts. Trustees add that progress made so far demonstrates their capacity to continue on their own.
"We are focused on building upon the momentum of all the progress the district has made under this administration," Carmen Ayala, the board's vice president, said in a prepared statement. "We are extremely proud of our students and staff for all they continue to do, as we work collectively to build a new narrative of growth and change in Hempstead."
With Michael R. Ebert
HEMPSTEAD SCHOOL DISTRICT TIMELINE
Sept. 14: Jack Bierwirth is appointed a special state adviser, or "distinguished educator," in Hempstead by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
Jan. 8: Bierwirth reports to the state that strife on Hempstead's school board has led to a chaotic situation.
Jan. 9: Shimon Waronker, the Hempstead school superintendent, is placed on administrative leave by a school board majority. Regina Armstrong is named his replacement.
Jan. 11: Elia and Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, meet privately with board members to stress the urgency of school improvements.
Jan. 17: School board trustees unanimously approve a districtwide improvement plan recommended by Bierwirth.
Jan. 25: Bierwirth reports that the district's board, though it approved the improvement plan, is still deeply divided.
Feb. 15: Elia orders Hempstead's new acting superintendent to send her monthly progress reports.
July 20: Bierwirth reports "significant" progress, including voter approval of a $215 million budget and a $46.8 million bond issue to rebuild theMarguerite G. Rhodes School.
Oct. 2: Elia extends Bierwirth's appointments an additional year.
Dec. 7: Bierwirth reports that Hempstead has improved graduation rates and test scores, but still has many hurdles to clear.
Feb. 14: Hempstead officials report that the district expects to pay nearly $43.4 million in tuition to charter schools — a development Bierwirth says "throws everything back to square one."
April 30: Tree removal begins at the site of the shuttered Rhodes school, marking the start of demolition.
June 18: Board members denounce a proposal by state lawmakers to establish a three-member monitoring board for Hempstead.
July 10: Bierwirth reports continuing and "very solid progress" except in school board governance.
July 15: Elia resigns and takes a job with a private educational consulting company.
Oct. 2: Bierwirth steps down.
SOURCE: NEWSDAY RESEARCH
HEMPSTEAD TEST SCORES
English Language Arts (grades 3-8)
Total tested: 2,902 students
Level 1: 1,218 students (42%)
Level 2: 932 students (32.1%)
Level 3: 597 students (20.6%)
Level 4: 155 students (5.3%)
Math (grades 3-8)
Total tested: 2,662 students
Level 1: 1,254 students(47.1%)
Level 2: 727 students (27.3%)
Level 3: 453 students (17%)
Level 4: 228 students (8.6%)
ELA (grades 3-8)
Total tested: 56,633 students
Level 1: 8,862 students (15.6%)
Level 2: 14,626 students (25.8%)
Level 3: 19,314 students (34.1%)
Level 4: 13,831 students (24.4%)
Math (grades 3-8)
Total tested: 52,066
Level 1: 8,365 students (16.1%)
Level 2: 11,114 students (21.3%)
Level 3: 15,022 students (28.9%)
Level 4: 17,565 students (33.7%)
ELA (grades 3-8)
Total tested: 47,842
Level 1: 12,731 students (26.6%)
Level 2: 14,947 students (31.2%)
Level 3: 13,889 students (29%)
Level 4: 6,275 students (13.1%)
Math (grades 3-8)
Total tested: 44,770
Level 1: 12,639 students (28.2%)
Level 2: 12,226 students (27.3%)
Level 3: 11,792 students (26.3%)
Level 4: 8,113 students (18.1%)
COMPILED BY MICHAEL R. EBERT