Wyandanch school district clerk Christian D. Code, left, district treasurer...

Wyandanch school district clerk Christian D. Code, left, district treasurer Dwight Singleton, state fiscal monitor Albert Chase and Superintendent Gina Talbert listen to business administrator Richard Snyder during a school board meeting Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Hempstead's school district has boosted its graduation rates and Wyandanch's finances have stabilized, but both systems and their elected school boards still have a way to go to meet performance targets, state records show.

Two new reports filed by state-appointed monitors spell out more than a dozen recent accomplishments in those districts, as well as continuing problems in student achievement, building repairs and leadership. Hempstead and Wyandanch are among four districts statewide that have been assigned monitors, and both Long Island systems have high rates of poverty.

William Johnson, who was appointed Hempstead's monitor in June 2020, is a retired Rockville Centre school superintendent now responsible for overseeing a broad restructuring of both academic and fiscal operations in Hempstead. Johnson succeeded another retired schools chief, Jack Bierwirth, who served Hempstead as a state adviser for two years.

Albert Chase, appointed Wyandanch's monitor in April 2020, is a former school business official in Garden City and other districts, and is now focusing on Wyandanch's finances and infrastructure. Both appointments are for five years.

Highlights of recent improvements as outlined in monitors' reports and other records:

  • Hempstead's high school graduation rate, which dropped below 40% in 2012, has held above 70% for the past two years. The most recent rates include both on-time graduations in June and delayed graduations in August, under a new state accounting system.
  • The district's Rhodes building, once shuttered and in disrepair, has been reconstructed. One aim is to relieve student overcrowding.
  • Five Hempstead elementary schools have won certification of their academic programs from the International Baccalaureate program, based in Geneva, Switzerland. Extension of the rigorous IB curriculum is planned for upper grades as well.
  • Regina Armstrong, formerly acting superintendent in Hempstead, has been promoted to full superintendent's status, with a three-year contract that provides greater administrative stability.
  • Wyandanch, which ran budget deficits estimated at several million dollars in 2017-18 and 2018-19, has ended the last two fiscal years by accumulating a $12.6 million surplus. An upgraded credit rating has lowered borrowing costs.
  • Richard Snyder, a school finance official with long experience in Bayport-Blue Point, Eastport-South Manor and other districts, has been appointed business administrator in Wyandanch. Snyder's annual salary is $180,000.

Both monitors' reports were posted on the state Education Department's website on Feb. 4, and covered district operations for the first half of the 2021 calendar year.

Johnson, in his report, described recent changes in Hempstead as "exemplary." Chase declared that Wyandanch has experienced "a significant turnaround in its financial condition."

Still, much remains to be done, as noted by the monitors themselves, and also by academic data recently generated by the state Education Department.

William Johnson was appointed Hempstead's monitor in June 2020.

William Johnson was appointed Hempstead's monitor in June 2020. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Graduation rates in Hempstead and Wyandanch, while improved in some regards, continue to lag more than 20 percentage points behind Long Island's average, according to results released by the state last month. The gap is more than 40 percentage points in terms of advanced diplomas signifying completion of upper-level courses such as geometry and chemistry.

Tracking achievement in elementary and middle grades has been more difficult, due to large numbers of students who missed state testing during COVID-19 outbreaks. Still, there are troubling signs. Among Hempstead students in grades 3-8 tested in English last spring, 762, or 41%, scored at the lowest level, meaning they were nonproficient in that subject. That number was larger than the 575 students, or 31%, who tested proficient.

Another big issue revolves around district leadership. Both monitors, in their separate reports, suggested ultimate success or failure in Hempstead and Wyandanch depended on whether school boards there could rise above the political infighting over patronage hiring that often has disrupted the districts' operations in the past.

Chase reported that Wyandanch board trustees, though they had taken training in their proper roles and responsibilities, sometimes overstepped those bounds.

"It is clear that school board members continue to interject themselves deeply into administrative matters, particularly those having to do with personnel and hiring," Chase wrote. "In some cases, such activity has made it difficult for the school district to operate in an effective and efficient manner, with the hiring of key staff being delayed."

Johnson reported that he had seen some recent progress in Hempstead trustees' cooperation, but added that the outcome remained uncertain.

"I believe that, although at times rough around the edges, this board is making a concerted effort to work with one another," Johnson wrote.

He went on to note that Hempstead recently set up new hiring procedures, but that "it remains to be seen" if the change will reduce delays in board approvals of job candidates recommended by the superintendent.

Board members, in phone interviews, generally endorsed the state's use of monitors, though some criticized certain aspects of the system. One Wyandanch trustee, Jarod Morris, praised Chase's work in straightening out district finances, but disputed the monitor's conclusion that trustees unnecessarily interfered with hiring decisions.

"Just hiring because you're told to do so is not a good approach," Morris said. "You have a responsibility to ask questions pertaining to job candidates in executive session."

LaMont Johnson, a longtime Hempstead trustee and former board president, described William Johnson, no relation, as an administrator with "a wealth of knowledge that he's used to help us improve our academic approach."

Another board member, Randy Stith, was more guarded in his assessment.

"If the people who make state law want us to work with a monitor, so be it," Stith said. "But the state ought to pay the salary."

Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong during a school board meeting Thursday.

Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong during a school board meeting Thursday. Credit: Johnny Milano

William Johnson's compensation is listed in the district budget as $250,000 annually. Johnson said the exact amount to be actually paid has not yet been calculated, but that the state would pay $175,000 as its share.

Chase is paid $145 per hour part time, which equates to about $140,000 annually, according to a spokesperson for Wyandanch. The state Education Department has provided Wyandanch a $175,000 grant, but not specifically for a monitor, the spokesperson added.

In any case, experts on school district operations widely agree that fights over patronage hiring can be destructive, especially in districts with high poverty rates. Alan Singer, an education professor at Hofstra University who has observed this phenomenon for many years, explained in an interview how patronage politics, coupled with yearly board elections, disrupt operations.

"In affluent communities, the low-paying school jobs — in cafeterias, in buildings and grounds — are not desirable," Singer said. "But in poorer communities, they are. So what happens is that school board candidates are part of the political machine. Every time a board majority shifts, we get a change in direction. There becomes no consistency in direction."

While poverty remains a problem, monitors noted that both Hempstead and Wyandanch have received large infusions of federal and state money that should help meet their needs over the next couple years. Financial relief includes millions of dollars in extra state foundation aid intended for the poorest districts.

Johnson reported, for example, that a large increase in foundation aid enabled Hempstead this year "to 'build back' some of the services and staff who had been lost." He added that federal money could be used over the next two years "to help recover from the impact of the pandemic on the district and its students."

Chase pegged Wyandanch's additional foundation aid at nearly $21.5 million between July 2020 and June 2024, concluding that it "should greatly assist the district in providing enhanced educational opportunities to students over the next several years."

What to know

The Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts have made progress in addressing multiple problems, ranging from low graduation rates to budget deficits, with the help of monitors assigned by the state in 2020.

Despite improvements, the two districts still face major challenges in raising student achievement and repairing schools, monitors conclude in new reports.

Another major question is whether elected school boards can curb political infighting over patronage job appointments that has hindered progress in the past, monitors report.

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