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District accuses superintendent of bid-rigging, negligence, misconduct

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker gives a presentation during

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker gives a presentation during a meeting of the Hempstead school board at Jackson Main Elementary School on Dec 22, 2017. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Hempstead school district and its board of education, in a 174-page document detailing 41 charges, accuses Superintendent Shimon Waronker of bid-rigging, conflict of interest, sham hiring, neglect of duty and misconduct, according to the papers released to Newsday and other media by Waronker’s attorney.

The allegations against the schools chief, whom the board placed on paid administrative leave in January, include that he committed bid-rigging of a $450,000 district contract awarded to the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn-based educational consulting firm he founded; that he deceived the district in continuing to be involved with that group; and that he disenrolled more than 300 students last fall in violation both of state law and those pupils’ due-process rights.

Frederick K. Brewington, the Hempstead-based lawyer representing Waronker, called the accusations “false and contrived to mask the real issues that Dr. Waronker was in the process of helping the District solve” in a statement late Thursday night, about two hours after Brewington publicly released the document.

The Nassau County district attorney’s office had not received a referral from the district, a spokeswoman said Friday.

The district’s lawyers had said the charges were delivered to Brewington’s office on Wednesday. The district did not make the document public, with Jonathan Scher, its attorney, saying, “We don’t want to compromise Mr. Waronker’s rights to decide whether or not this matter should be public or private, which is his election to make under his contract.”

On Friday, Scher said, “I believe the seriousness of the charges is reflected by the charges themselves — they speak for themselves. Now that the charges have been made public, we encourage the members of the community to read them and get a sense … of how serious they are.”

Nicole Epstein of Gotham Government Relations and Communications, the media relations firm representing the school system, said Friday that the district was pleased Waronker decided to release the charges and hopes that he agrees to “a public hearing as it is important for the taxpayers to know the truth.”

Brewington, in releasing the charges on Thursday, wrote that he did so after conferring with his client.

“When we have reviewed all of these charges carefully, we will then look forward to addressing them in due course,” the attorney said in his statement later Thursday night, responding to an inquiry from Newsday. He added, “This Board of Education has chosen to follow a path of denial of the real concerns facing the District and the children of Hempstead . . . Their false charges will be challenged.”

Brewington, referring to the potential for an arbitration process, wrote of the trustees, “They have now begun a process that will require all of them to be sworn and give testimony. A fate which they will not be able to escape. In time, truth will rise.”

Waronker started work in the district on June 2, 2017, under a four-year contract paying $265,000 annually in base salary plus benefits. The Harvard-educated administrator came to Hempstead with a reputation for turning around low-performing and violent schools in New York City.

The 8,000-plus student district — the largest K-12 system in Nassau County — has been troubled for decades. The state Education Department and state comptroller have repeatedly criticized its governance, factionalism among trustees, high rate of administrative turnover and failure to correct financial irregularities and upgrade deteriorating infrastructure.

The system’s challenges are many: Seventy percent of its students were classified by the state as economically disadvantaged and 39 percent as English language learners, according to data for 2016-17, the most recent on the Education Department’s website. The graduation rate has dropped below 40 percent; Hempstead High is the only school on Long Island that the state has categorized as “persistently struggling;” and test scores of students in grades three through eight on state English and math exams are at the bottom in the two-county region.

Waronker initially was viewed as a reformer who would bring in new ideas and approaches. But through last fall, his relations with some members of the school board soured, and he drew criticism for personnel decisions and expenditures, including those associated with the New American Initiative.

The five-member school board, after a shift in the board majority, voted 3-2 to place him on paid administrative leave on Jan. 9. Regina Armstrong, a longtime administrator in the system, was appointed as acting superintendent.

It was on Tuesday, in a hastily called special meeting, that the trustees voted unanimously to take steps toward dismissing Waronker.

The charges, dated and signed Tuesday by Board of Education president LaMont Johnson, “represent where the district contends that the alleged acts constitute a material breach of this agreement,” referring to Waronker’s contract. His pact with the district requires a hearing and stipulates that a hearing officer be mutually selected by him and the board within five days of his receipt of the charges. He has the right to choose whether the hearing is public or private.

A payout of the remainder of Waronker’s contract would mean a potential expenditure of $795,000 in salary alone, plus thousands in benefits. If the matter goes to a hearing, an arbitrator must be paid and legal costs will increase.

A number of the charges reference the New American Initiative, including the alleged rigging of the contract’s award, stealing time and a sham hiring process. The document accuses Waronker of “surreptitiously and deceptively” continuing to provide services to the group, abbreviated in the document as NAI, without disclosing that to the district. The district alleges that he recommended four teachers — all connected to NAI or its sister organizations — out of a pool of 80 applicants to be hired as master teachers at a salary of $135,000 each.

“Instead of focusing on the operations of the district … as required by your contract, you prioritized your loyalty to the NAI and continued to be intricately and intimately involved in the operations of the NAI,” the charges say.

Waronker has said he brought in the agency to help students. In a federal lawsuit filed in January challenging his placement on paid leave, he said New American Initiative had the support of the district’s former board majority — three trustees who voted to hire him in spring 2017 — as one of several turnaround measures. His contract specifically bans his drawing compensation from the group, a point that Waronker has made publicly and in court papers.

On Friday, Scher referred to a section of Waronker’s contract on affiliations, saying it “represented that he ‘had had professional and financial transactions’ with certain organizations which implied that those were past relationships. The issue is whether the board knew that it was an ongoing relationship and not a past relationship, and if it had been disclosed why were multiple email addresses used to conceal the role that he was playing as alleged in the charges.”

The district and board also accuse him of neglecting his duties as superintendent and of gross misconduct. The charges allege Waronker failed to manage the employment of the high school principal, Stephen Strachan, who was let go by Waronker in August 2017. (The board rehired Strachan earlier this year.) He also is accused of improperly disenrolling students and denying about 40 students the right to re-enroll in the district.

Alan J. Singer, an education professor at Hofstra University, said Friday he had read the district’s document and that the board “threw the kitchen sink” at Waronker. He pointed out that the superintendent’s agreement with the New American Initiative was approved by the prior board in power and, at the time, the trustees were aware of the relationships Waronker had with the group.

“What we are looking at is a power struggle for political control over the Hempstead school district, and the faction that hired him lost out and they want to get rid of him,” Singer said, referring to the board’s current power dynamic. If some of the actions are as alleged, Waronker may have had bad judgment, but “it is not clear that that constitutes grounds for dismissal,” he said.

Singer was skeptical of whether the district’s accusations could lead to criminal charges, noting that Waronker had the approval of his efforts from the former school board majority.

Joel R. Weiss, a Uniondale-based defense lawyer who formerly was Frauds Bureau chief in the Nassau County district attorney’s office, said a board of education has a much lower standard of proof than would a criminal prosecutor such as a district attorney or a United States attorney.

“The standard of proof that a district attorney or U.S. attorney would have to sustain is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a standard that amounts to near certainty. For a board or a civil court, the standard of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence,” Weiss said. “Those two standards are quite different, and the very high burden of proof that prosecutors are required to sustain can deter them from going forward with a prosecution.”

Singer said the Education Department has long been aware of the district’s problems and it is the agency’s responsibility to ensure the system’s operations are legitimate. Hempstead currently is under a state-appointed monitor, veteran school administrator Jack Bierwirth, who reports directly to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

Last September, Elia appointed Bierwirth to examine district operations — from governance, financial operations and infrastructure to academics, curriculum and security — and make recommendations. From his extensive report, the commissioner ordered the district to create and implement a response plan.

Friday, the Education Department said it could not comment on personnel matters.

With Keshia Clukey and Zachary R. Dowdy

Hempstead school district’s accusations

Charges against Superintendent Shimon Waronker by the Hempstead system and the school board include allegations of bid-rigging, conflict of interest, cronyism, neglect of duty and gross misconduct. Waronker, through his attorney Frederick K. Brewington, denied all the accusations.

Among the 41 charges, the document says the administrator:

  • Committed bid-rigging of a $450,000 district contract awarded to the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn-based educational consulting firm he founded.
  • “Deceptively” continued to work for that group, used time doing so that should have been spent working for the district, and improperly used grant funds as payment to the group.
  • Recommended only four teachers out of a pool of 80 applicants to be hired as master teachers at a salary of $135,000 each. Each of the four had a connection to the Initiative or its sister organizations, the charges say, and their hiring “was the product of cronyism, favoritism, and pre-determined selection.”
  • Improperly disenrolled 316 district students in October and November 2017, of whom 294 were potential graduates. The papers allege that some district staff believed this was done to improve the district’s graduation rate.
  • Failed to manage the employment of the Hempstead High School principal, Stephen Strachan, whom Waronker let go in August 2017. The board rehired Strachan in mid-January.
  • Failed to manage the high school and violence among its students.
  • Referred, in a meeting with district employees, to some students he had acted to disenroll as “dead weight” and “roadkill.”
  • Brought negative publicity to the district.

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