State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Tuesday extended the appointment of veteran administrator Jack Bierwirth as a special adviser to the Hempstead school district, giving him another year to oversee the chronically troubled system’s turnaround efforts.
“Over the past year, Dr. Bierwirth has done a remarkable job in working with the school board, Superintendent, staff and community in Hempstead to make notable progress in a number of areas,” Elia said in a news release. “However, we know that much work remains to be done to improve district operations and academics so every student in Hempstead gets the education he or she deserves."
The reappointment is effective as of Tuesday. The district must enter into a contract with him within 30 days, according to the news release.
The district, with more than 8,000 students, has been plagued by low academic performance and financial mismanagement, as well as infighting and turnover on its school board.
In 2017, Hempstead had the lowest high school graduation rate on Long Island and one of the lowest in the state, with 219 students receiving diplomas out of a class of 596, a rate of 37 percent. Hempstead is the largest K-12 district in Nassau County, with 70 percent of its students classified by the state as economically disadvantaged and 39 percent as English language learners, according to data for 2016-17, the most recent available on the Education Department’s website.
"We are extremely thankful for [Dr. Bierwirth's] wealth of educational knowledge and experience as it supports and guides us in reaching real progress and results for all of our students," said school board president LaMont Johnson in an emailed statement.
He added, "However, we must not forget the long road we have ahead of us and must remain focused on working towards a higher graduation rate, every single day, in order to ensure that all of our students have the bright future that they deserve. We are grateful for Dr. Bierwirth’s dedication to the HUFSD and certainly look forward to continuing our meaningful partnership in order to get the absolute best results for our students."
Bierwirth, 71, whose career has spanned nearly five decades and included stints as superintendent in the Herricks, Freeport and Sachem school districts, was appointed by Elia in September 2017 as “distinguished educator.”
At the time he was only the second person tapped for such a position since it was created under a 2007 state law.
Bierwirth officially began in the district in October 2017 and reports directly to Elia. He sits as a nonvoting school board member.
For the past year, Bierwirth has worked with district officials to review district systems, structures and operations, as well as develop and rollout improvement plans for student achievement.
“The first year had two phases: One was the assessment and recommendations, the second was to assist the district in the implementation of the plan of action and monitor whether they were staying on track and on time," Bierwirth said. “This year will be more about supporting and ensuring that the district stays on track and on time, and is focused on long-term plans that will be sustained after I am no longer actively involved.”
During his first 45 days, Bierwirth will work with the district to revise the goals and objectives for the district, himself and the new school year, according to the state education department. The plan must be submitted to Elia for approval.
Hempstead will require a sustained effort for the next five to 10 years to get where it should be in terms of facilities, operations and instruction, Bierwirth has said.
Bierwirth said he was paid $220,543 from October through August, not including mileage and toll expenses. He said he has been working part time since May and hopes to continue to do so over the next year. State records show his annual pension from the New York State Teachers' Retirement System is $192,151.
In Bierwirth’s initial report to Elia, which she publicly released Jan. 8, he singled out the district’s governance as its “most significant barrier.” The 56-page report outlined 10 areas for improvement with recommendations and an action plan for each.
Bierwirth has submitted three quarterly reports since then, each touching on the same areas: governance, budget and fiscal operations, school safety and security, facilities, high school instruction, prekindergarten to eighth-grade instruction, special education, English language learners, the nutrition program, and information technology.
In his third quarterly report, dated July 20, Bierwirth cited “significant progress,” including refiguring its budget to be more accurate and putting in place standardized procedures and policies regarding purchase orders. He touted the district’s ability in May to get public approval for its approximately $215 million budget for the 2018-19 school year and a $46.8 million bond issue to demolish and replace the long-shuttered Marguerite G. Rhodes School.
Voters in May ousted board president Maribel Touré and vice president Gwendolyn Jackson, who made up a minority bloc on the panel, in favor of newcomers Carmen Ayala and Patricia Spleen.
Bierwirth wrote that the board “seems cohesive and focused on fulfilling its motto of ‘students first,’ ” since Ayala and Spleen took office in July, working with incumbents Johnson, David Gates and Randy Stith, who previously made up the board majority.
Bierwirth’s fourth quarter report is expected this month.
“The district has made a great deal of progress, but we are a long ways from success,” Bierwirth said. “I’d like to continue to help them with that progress acting as a bridge between the district and the state, and also bringing resources from the outside of the district to help them in specific areas.”