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Hempstead schools pledge changes to state comptroller

After a meeting of the Hempstead School board,

After a meeting of the Hempstead School board, which was held mostly in executive session, angry members of the community confront one of the school's attorneys Austin Graff, (far right) on the evening of June 23, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Hempstead school district will better control its payroll and benefits, be more transparent with the public and regularly monitor special education services, according to a corrective plan filed with the state in response to a scathing December audit.

Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that Hempstead in recent years overpaid staff by $453,000 and the district "repeatedly excluded the public from board deliberations."

Many of the changes will go into effect after the school board's next meeting, scheduled April 16, although some might start sooner, according to a March 26 letter signed by board president Lamont Johnson.

None of the recommendations or pledges for reform is legally binding.

"At the end of the day, it is up to district officials and the board to make sure these changes are implemented," DiNapoli spokesman Brian Butry said Wednesday.

The board president said the district is being "very aggressive" in tackling the problems cited in the report.

"We are going to do exactly what they say we have to do," Johnson said. "All of these are reachable, attainable goals."

The comptroller, who earlier said the board "did not make sound, transparent financial decisions," could audit Hempstead again but that is not guaranteed, he said.

DiNapoli's report, which centered on a period beginning July 1, 2011, and ending March 31, 2013, found numerous pay-related discrepancies.

Among them, school superintendent Susan Johnson's biweekly paychecks were inflated by $7,000 to $11,000 more than she was contractually guaranteed. That occurred on orders of former board president Betty Cross, the comptroller said.

Recouping funds

The superintendent, who was hired permanently in 2012 at a $210,000 base salary, was placed on a repayment plan. She is not related to the board president.

The state education commissioner removed Cross from her post last summer, for an unrelated reason.

According to the district, the superintendent and the assistant superintendent of business will team up to recoup overpayments for administrators' unused vacation days, to be deducted from their current salaries. Employees no longer with the district will get a letter demanding repayment.

The district also said it would make clearer the resolutions that board members consider, for residents' better understanding, and that it will make public all new contracts.

Further, any increase in salary, payment of vacation or sick pay, or stipend must be approved by a majority of the five-member board.

"This is a change from a long-standing past practice that has existed in the district for more than twenty years," the document said.

The district also said vendors and contractors will be more closely screened.

Doubting improvements

Diane Goins, chair of the Long Island Chapter of New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group, said Wednesday she doubts substantive improvements can occur under the current administration.

"I don't trust their response," she said. "They can say anything. What is going to happen if they don't do it? There is no repercussion. We need new leadership."

After the comptroller found that some school employees were not qualified for the positions they held, Hempstead pledged to scour its records to see that all personnel meet at least minimum requirements.

The district did not promise change in two key areas.

While DiNapoli recommended that it "discontinue its practice" of calling special and emergency meetings unless those are warranted, Hempstead hedged, saying only that it would make sure all such notices include the purpose of the gathering.

The comptroller also recommended that all evaluations of special-education students be completed within 60 days of referrals, that all necessary parties appropriately oversee such students and that all required tests are administered during such evaluations. The district's response said only that the assistant superintendent for special education will need to report to the board at its regular meetings.

Wednesday, however, the board president said the recommendations regarding those students will be put in place.

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