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Hempstead school district launching superintendent search

Hempstead Superintendent Susan Johnson speaks during a public

Hempstead Superintendent Susan Johnson speaks during a public school board meeting on Nov. 20, 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The troubled Hempstead school district is seeking its third superintendent in a little over two years, even as a new board and its staff continue their efforts to accommodate a sudden influx of immigrant students.

Lamont Johnson, the school board president, announced late Thursday night that trustees would conduct a national search for a potential replacement for Superintendent Susan Johnson, whose contract expires June 30, 2016. The board president and superintendent are not related.

The school board voted 5-0 to begin the search now because trustees want to ensure there is time for a thorough vetting of candidates, the board president said.

Lamont Johnson insisted the planned search does not reflect negatively on the superintendent's job performance. He added, however, that Susan Johnson had been ordered to return $49,436 in salary, described as an overpayment for the 2012-13 school year.

The school chief's contract shows three different levels of pay for portions of that school year, ranging from $60,000 as a consultant -- before she was named superintendent -- to a $245,000 annual base salary, prorated for the final two months. Newsday obtained the contract earlier under a Freedom of Information Law request.

The board president said he could not discuss details of the alleged overpayment because of confidentiality rules.

"We just have to be prepared for anything that happens in the future," Lamont Johnson said in a phone interview Friday. "We want to get our act together. We want to have a higher graduation rate. We want our taxpayers to get their money's worth."

He added that the district recently hired several additional bilingual teachers to help deal with an unexpected enrollment surge this year by hundreds of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

The superintendent's office Friday referred all questions about her job status to a district public relations spokesman, Nathan Jackson, who deferred to the board president.

Some Hempstead residents questioned the early start of a search for a new schools chief, noting the district is obligated to pay the current superintendent hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the balance of her contract.

However, Elias Mestizo, president of Hempstead's teachers union, said a year and a half is a reasonable length of time to find a qualified administrator.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, said outside help is available for Hempstead if it shows a willingness to cooperate with state authorities, and that the local board's decision to conduct a superintendent search could be a positive signal.

"I do know there are opportunities for Hempstead that are available from local universities, and also different grants from both the state Education Department and the federal government," Tilles said.

Susan Johnson officially returned to the superintendent's post -- which she has held twice before -- in December 2012, with backing from a school board majority headed by then-president Betty Cross.

Cross herself was ousted by challenger Maribel Touré in a special election last month.

According to Johnson's contract, her annual base salary is $260,000. She can earn supplemental merit pay of up to $40,000 this school year based on her performance evaluation.

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