The Hempstead school district overpaid its superintendent by tens of thousands of dollars, routinely held closed-door meetings to the exclusion of the public and failed to screen and provide services for some special-needs children, a state audit has found.
New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said the district repeatedly disregarded sound fiscal and administrative practices, it lacked internal controls and many of its decisions were made "in the shadows."
The audit examined records and procedures from July 1, 2011, through March 31, 2013.
School officials, in a written response to the report, said they have taken steps to rectify some of the problems. "This Board acknowledges the many challenges that the District inherited and will strive to implement the necessary corrective action within the spirit of accountability, transparency, and full disclosure," it said.
Board president Lamont Johnson said he could not explain decisions that were made before he joined the board in May 2013, but he pledged to make the body more open. Already, he said, the district is looking to eliminate duplicative positions and also will change its number of meetings going forward to two per month, which will reduce the need for special or emergency sessions.
Bidding process ignored
According to the comptroller's findings, released Monday, Hempstead also awarded $1.3 million in contracts without going through the bidding process and appointed four people -- a homeless liaison, assistant coach and two community aides -- who were not qualified for their jobs. One of the aides was overpaid by $26,000.
The audit found that Hempstead also created a position from July 2011 through September 2012 that mirrored the clerk's and paid that person $94,000 before declaring the post a mistake and eliminating the job. District officials "could not state with certainty what work this individual performed," the report said.
Hempstead also failed to apply for federal aid to help offset the costs of educating its special-needs population; it could have recouped $42,096 for 16 such children, the audit found.
According to the report, when Susan Johnson was promoted to permanent superintendent, the board passed a resolution to pay her $210,000, which would have brought her biweekly checks to $8,077. Instead, they rose to $15,000, which would have brought her annual salary to $390,000.
Former board president Betty Cross, removed from her post by the state this summer, ordered the increase, district employees told the comptroller. Johnson received the inflated checks for the next five pay periods, DiNapoli found.
"We question why the former Board President misinformed the payroll department . . . and why the Superintendent failed to inform the Board of the overpayments," DiNapoli's office wrote.
Johnson's salary was eventually decreased, but the comptroller said that despite this she was still overpaid $32,769 for the 2012-13 school year. She's on a payment plan; district officials did not immediately know whether she's returned what she owed.
No desire for buyout
Board president Johnson, who has no relation to the superintendent, said he could not explain her jump in pay. He has no desire to remove her from the post because he doesn't want to buy out her contract and pay for a new schools chief, he said.
The superintendent could not be reached for comment.
"You can't just keep hiring and firing people," the board president said. "I'm not willing to pay her and someone else. That has happened too much in the past."
Lucas Sanchez, Long Island director for the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, called the overpayment "outrageous."
"Based on these findings, the superintendent and all of the board members who presided during this period should resign immediately," he said.
DiNapoli said, too, that while the board scheduled 13 meetings per year between July 1, 2011, and March 31, 2013, it held a total of 65. Most were labeled "special" or "emergency" and were held at times and in locations that could not accommodate the public.
In addition, the office randomly selected 24 students out of 204 who were referred for special education services and found that while special educational plans were crafted for 19 of the children, Hempstead could not provide documentation to show the services were provided.
The audit also examined payments to seven educational-service providers who were paid more than $3.5 million during the audit period. It found that four were paid $1.3 million outside the proper bidding process. Further, the district did not keep records to show whether these services were provided.
State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's office concluded there have been numerous questionable decisions made by leaders of the Hempstead school district. These are some of the key findings:
Six administrators eceived $48,000 in benefits that were not in accordance with their contract or district policy.
While the board scheduled 13 meetings a year between July 1, 2011, and March 31, 2013, it held 65 -- most labeled "special" or "emergency" and held at times and in locations not accessible to the public.
Far too many people -- including a security aide -- had access to sensitive student data and could make changes to grades, attendance, enrollment and disciplinary activity.
Four staffers -- a homeless liaison, an assistant coach, and two community aides -- were hired for positions for which they did not qualify.
Substitute teachers were permitted to lead classes in excess of the state's cap on the number of days they can work.
District administrators did not always ensure that special-needs students were evaluated within the 60-day time frame allotted by the state, that they were given all of the required tests necessary to determine an academic path forward and that they were not all provided proper services.
From July 2011 through September 2012, the district made $95,000 in vendor payments to a school board assistant whose duties mirrored that of the clerk; officials claimed the creation of the post was a mistake.