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Earlene Hooper pushes Roosevelt schools to hire $350-per-hour consultant

Hempstead mayoral candidate Lance Clarke stands to answer

Hempstead mayoral candidate Lance Clarke stands to answer a question during a mayoral candidate's forum at the African American Museum. (March 14, 2013) Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Assembly Deputy Speaker Earlene Hooper is pushing the Roosevelt school district to hire as a consultant a well-connected Hempstead attorney -- who charges $350 an hour -- to lobby for renewal of millions in special state aid.

Hooper pressed the district to hire Lance Clarke, a former deputy mayor and justice for the Village of Hempstead, on the grounds a consultant is needed to review Roosevelt's fiscal status. District officials said they will face a severe deficit next year if they fail to win renewal of $14 million in special state-aid allotments that expired in June.

Hooper, along with state Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), was a key figure in obtaining the extra state money during the state's 11-year takeover of the district, which ended July 1.

Hooper (D-Hempstead), in an interview Thursday, endorsed Clarke for the consultant's job.

"Judge Clarke has a stellar reputation," said Hooper, who has represented Hempstead and Roosevelt for more than 25 years. "I think that it would be wise if the board were to accept his expertise and experience."

The Roosevelt school board was set to consider Clarke's appointment at a special 4 p.m. meeting Thursday at the district's high school.

The meeting was canceled after Newsday began asking state and local officials about the hiring plan.

School board president Robert Summerville called off the meeting shortly before its start, saying a majority of the five trustees could not attend. Summerville also questioned Hooper's proposed approach.

"I don't understand why the deputy speaker is recommending an attorney to do an accountant's work," Summerville said, adding that he could not say when the board would revisit the issue.

Summerville and other district officials said they must check with the state Education Department and the district's attorneys before taking any action.

Clarke did not return Newsday's calls Thursday.

The Roosevelt district ranks among the poorest in Nassau County and depends highly on state financial assistance. Nearly 75 percent of its $88.9 million budget for 2013-14 comes from state and federal aid, compared with a Long Island average of less than 30 percent.

Alfred Taylor, another school board member, said Hooper's proposal to hire a consultant was discussed in August with state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. At that meeting in Albany, Taylor said, the commissioner said the matter should be decided locally.

"The decision to engage a lobbyist is a local school district matter," Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said in a prepared statement. "The department has no role in such decisions."

Dunn said that position extended to aspects of Clarke's envisioned role, which the attorney laid out in a Sept. 20 letter to district Superintendent Deborah Wortham. Newsday obtained a copy.

Clarke, proposing that he be called a "Government Liaison Consultant," spelled out an extensive role that would include reviewing district finances, meeting with state officials in Albany and issuing progress reports to Hooper and other authorities.

He estimated he would work 35 to 40 hours monthly, at a rate of $350 per hour, from Oct. 1 through June 30. Travel expenses and any lodging outside of Nassau County would require reimbursement.

Clarke said he would review Roosevelt's fiscal status for the past several years, as well as its five-year fiscal plan and financial projections for 2014-15. The attorney added that he would attend board meetings and confer with the superintendent, board members, principals, teachers, PTA representatives and parents.

Clarke wrote that those activities would help him prepare reports for Hooper and other officials, and were designed to ensure renewal of Roosevelt's financial aid.

"My role as Government Liaison Consultant would be to act as your best advocate in Albany to restore and, if possible, enhance special assistance funding that will enable the School District to continue its mission to provide the best possible educational environment," he wrote.

Some Roosevelt officials said privately that hiring a well-known local figure for such a role in the district's management could mark a return to conditions prevalent before the state's takeover, when political entanglements were common.

Wortham underscored the district's reliance on state aid in a Sept. 15 memo to district administrators, obtained by Newsday. In the memo, she said she had met two days earlier with "one of the highest ranking legislators in New York." Newsday confirmed that to be Hooper.

"It is very possible that someone will be assigned by this legislator to work here (on-site and paid by the board) that will submit reports to this legislator on a regular basis," Wortham wrote. "These reports will determine if we have legislative support in closing the $19 million deficit we are currently facing for the 2014-15 school year. Without this financial support, what would we do?"

With Aisha al-Muslim


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