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State schools chief to visit Hempstead district 

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks to members

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks to members of the Board of Regents at their meeting Monday in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia plans to meet Friday in Hempstead with school board members and the district’s administrators, Education Department officials said Thursday.

The visit comes one week after release of state-appointed special adviser Jack Bierwirth’s annual review of the nearly 8,000-student system. Elia named him to the position of “Distinguished Educator” in fall 2017, with a mandate to assess all district operations and report to her with recommendations for turning around the chronically troubled district.

Bierwirth wrote in the Dec. 7 report that Hempstead has made “substantial progress” and pointed out major challenges that remain. Those include inconsistent governance, academic performance that continues to be among the lowest in the state, expired labor contracts and accounting irregularities. It was his fourth report to Elia since he began work in the system in October 2017.

The commissioner, in a statement last week, said the progress demonstrated in the annual review was “encouraging.”

"While the District has come a long way in just 15 months, much work remains to drive further improvements and ensure these changes are permanent and have a lasting impact,” she said then.

Elia has a full slate of meetings Friday with district administrators and staff and the five-member school board, according to the Education Department. The visit will not be open to the public, although the commissioner, Bierwirth and Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, will be available to the media at 3:15 p.m.

LaMont Johnson, president of the school board, said in a statement Thursday said Elia's visit is a clear sign that she and the panel have the same goal of "students first."

"I am thankful for the Commissioner's time, dedication, and attention to [the district] as we work to ensure that every child in our District receives a high-quality education," Johnson said.

The district has improved student state test scores and graduation rates, put in place more accurate financial and budget practices, and is addressing long-standing issues with facilities, according to Bierwirth's annual report.

Friday will be the first time Elia has met with leaders of the system since she and Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa made an extraordinary personal visit to Hempstead in January. Then, the two spoke individually with board members about the urgency of implementing changes and working together.

The composition of the board, long marked by infighting and 3-2 votes on a range of issues, changed in July as a result of the May election. The current trustees — Johnson, Vice President Carmen Ayala and trustees David Gates, Patricia Spleen and Randy Stith — have largely been more unified.

Bierwirth, in his third report dated July 2, wrote that the panel as a whole has been “cohesive and focused on fulfilling its motto of ‘students first.’ "

Johnson, in his response last week to the special adviser’s annual review, said in an email that he recognized the challenges of the difficult work, and his goal is to “bring all students up to achievement which meets their full potential.”

Similarly, Regina Armstrong, the acting district superintendent, last week gave assurance that administrators, board trustees and staff are committed to “work collaboratively to strengthen all areas that need improvement.” She reiterated those sentiments in the release Thursday regarding Elia's visit. 

Elia’s appointment of the special adviser is the state’s most hands-on exercise of power over a Long Island district since its 2002 takeover of the Roosevelt system, the first and only time that has occurred in New York. The state’s action in that Nassau district resulted in boosts in students’ academic performance and improvements in infrastructure, but it was an expensive 11-year commitment and officials have vowed not to go that route again.

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