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Regent calls for action on monitors for Hempstead, Wyandanch schools

Regent Roger Tilles, right, speaks during a meeting

Regent Roger Tilles, right, speaks during a meeting of the Long Island Association in Melville on Tuesday. Robert Isaksen, Bank of America Long Island market president, is at left. Credit: Barry Sloan

A leading educational policymaker on Long Island called Tuesday for action on two long-pending legislative bills that would establish state monitors with extensive veto powers for the troubled Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts. 

Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents the Nassau-Suffolk region on the state's Board of Regents, told members of a regional business group that, although many Long Island school districts rank among the nation's best, a handful are plagued with financial mismanagement and low academic scores. 

One key problem in such districts, Tilles added, is that their school boards often regard students as a secondary priority, focusing their attention on control of patronage job appointments for friends and relatives. In such cases, he said, the state has a responsibility to intervene.

Tilles, who has served on the state's educational policy board for nearly 15 years, said local elected school boards that abrogate their responsibility to put students first should face the consequences. 

"Democracy equals local control, that's what you hear in Albany all the time," said the veteran Regent. "Well, when local control is not looking out for kids, and is looking out for jobs, somebody needs to step in and say, 'Wait a second. Somebody's got to protect these kids.' "

Tilles spoke Tuesday to members of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, in Melville. 

Both Hempstead and Wyandanch are dealing this year with substantial staff cuts because of chronic budget problems. The two districts are the poorest on the Island in terms of taxable property values and family incomes. 

State lawmakers in Albany responded to the districts' troubles in June by passing bills that would allow the appointment of monitors for both systems with authority to veto spending and hiring decisions. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has until the end of this calendar year to take action on the bills.

The LIA endorsed the Hempstead legislation in August and urged Cuomo to sign it. Tilles on Tuesday called on LIA members to redouble their efforts to push the legislation through.  

Hempstead officials, meanwhile, responded sharply to Tilles' critique, suggesting that the Regent had ignored the district's recent successes in boosting graduation rates.

The percentage of students graduating after four years at Hempstead High School rose from 39.7% in 2015 to 44.3% in 2018, according to state's latest data. Hempstead officials contend that more recent data would show gains of more than 20 points, but the state has not yet confirmed this. 

"How has Regent Tilles distinguished himself as an educational leader capable of positively impacting the district from his lofty position as Regent since 2005?" said Nicole Epstein, a district spokeswoman. "He should recuse himself from an ethics position due to his lack of knowledge and involvement with the district despite living five miles away." 

Nathan Jackson, a Wyandanch spokesman, said the district had no comment.

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