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Speakers complain at first Hempstead school board meeting

Late and crowded buses, dilapidated buildings and poor athletic facilities were among the items that Hempstead residents raised at the first school board meeting of the new academic year Thursday night.

Much of the meeting consisted of boilerplate passage of agenda items and transfer of others into executive session, including the fate of suspended Hempstead High School principal Stephen Strachan and the installation of a “distinguished educator,” as well as the usual banter between and among the members of the divided five-member Hempstead School Board.

But more than one speaker in the public comment period, which included at least three students, questioned the lingering acrimony on the board and how students could benefit with their elected leaders at odds.

A student characterized the relationship of members on the board to each other and Superintendent Shimon Waronker as “chaos” while a parent stood up to say that the district’s leaders were “an embarassment.”

And reflecting growing frustration with the district, still other residents asked why Waronker has not yet shared with them a comprehensive plan to turn the struggling district around.

“You need to get your acts together,” said Anne Oyelana, a parent who said her 9-year-old daughter in fourth grade is late to class every morning because of a tardy bus pickup.

“I’m a taxpayer in the district,” she said. “The bus comes late every day.”

Expressing some of the disappointment audience members said they felt about the divided board, she added: “There is a temperament required for leadership,” referring to the repartee among board members and what some said they viewed as disrespect for each other and the public they serve. “You need to get it together.”

She was one of several speakers to address the four board members present, President Maribel Toure, Vice President Gwendolyn Jackson, Trustee Randy Stith and Trustee Mary Crosson as well as Waronker, who was installed in June even as, one speaker noted, the district had not yet released the former superintendent, Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, paying both men’s salaries during the month of June.

One student, who appeared before the board in her blue and white cheerleader outfit, said she was ashamed to host visiting teams because the athletic facilities are in disrepair.

“Our track and field is not the best,” she said. “It’s the worst in Nassau County.”

Waronker said he shared the student’s outrage and that he has tried to survey the facilities and grounds to get them renovated, calling it a “high priority.”

She added, though, that ceilings were caving in and that some walls are moldy.

Former board member LaMont Johnson asked what the district was doing about violence in and around the schools a few weeks after a Sept. 11 shooting near the high school building, while 20-year-Hempstead resident Ida Jackson worried about the district’s reputation — its middle and high schools are in receivership — and how Waronker and the board plan to fix it.

“What’s being done?” she asked, adding that she grows weary of hearing of the district’s academic woes. “All of this nonsense has got to stop.”

Stith at least twice said he was apologizing on behalf of the board as speakers said they were disappointed with how they were treated in general and during the meeting. And Toure remarked that the bickering is what has prevented the board from being effective.

“I want to apologize again for the board,” Stith said, adding that the school board must take responsibility for the district’s status and its image in the mind of the public. “At the end of the day, the buck stops with us.”

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