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Randi Weingarten offers hope at Hempstead teachers union forum

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks during a forum held by the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association at Hofstra University on Jan. 8, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The president of the American Federation of Teachers said Thursday she and her organization -- along with the community at large -- can help improve the Hempstead school district even as it faces numerous hurdles.

Some of those hurdles were discussed later in the evening at the district's first school board meeting of 2015, when some parents addressed leaders about questionable practices and other issues raised in a state audit.

AFT chief Randi Weingarten was the keynote speaker at a forum Thursday evening at Hofstra University sponsored by the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association.

"Even when you have great dysfunction, you as a community can turn this around," she said. "Where there is this will, where there is this passion, where there is this resilience, we, together, can make sure you reclaim this promise of public education."

Weingarten said in an earlier interview she is aware of the district's many problems.

But now is the time to focus on the future, she said.

"You have to have a positive vision for where you want to go," she said in the earlier interview. "You have to give people hope."

The district's award winning choir dazzled the 200 educators gathered Thursday night to help find ways to improve the school system.

Current students and recent graduates told the crowd that many children and their teachers work hard to achieve their academic goals.

Keyvi Mejia Lopez, a fifth-grader and recent immigrant from Honduras, said she was thrilled to be able to come to the United States to pursue educational opportunities not available in her home country.

Keyvi thanked her teachers for welcoming her into their classrooms, for "helping me reach the dreams I have set for myself." She said she would like to join the U.S. Army and ultimately hopes to become a police officer.

The Hempstead district has been roiled by controversy in many areas: treatment of immigrant children who came to the United States from Central America as unaccompanied minors; the state comptroller's recent findings of financial and administrative mismanagement; and the disputed board election that led the state education commissioner to take the unusual step of ordering a trustee's removal. District officials have said they are working to correct the numerous problems cited in the state audit and in Education Department reviews.

The district long has been marked by political infighting over job patronage, rapid turnover of administrators and poor academic performance. The high school's 2014 graduation rate was 37 percent, an improvement from 35.5 percent in 2013, but by far the lowest among Long Island's 124 districts.

The forum, which began at 5 p.m. at the Monroe Lecture Center, ended just before Hempstead's first school board meeting of the year, in which taxpayers tried to hold the board accountable for its financial foibles.

Patricia McNeill, a Hempstead resident for 32 years with two children in the district, told the board she was outraged they hired four people without the proper credentials, as the comptroller's report found.

"We have a buddy system here," McNeill said. "If you know the right person, they will find a job for you."

She asked the board how it would recoup the money. Superintendent Susan Johnson said those employees will be moved to positions they are qualified to fill.

The superintendent herself is on a payment plan to give back thousands of dollars in overpayments. She declined to elaborate on how or why her paychecks became inflated.

Elias Mestizo, head of Hempstead's teachers union, said he hopes the event will help the community begin to create a plan to bolster the district's academic performance.

"The Hempstead community as a whole has awakened," Mestizo said, adding that together "we can restore excellence."

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