A federal judge on Tuesday rejected an effort by the embattled superintendent of the Hempstead school district, Shimon Waronker, to immediately resume his work in charge of daily operations of Long Island’s most troubled system.
U.S. District Court Judge Denis Hurley turned down Waronker’s request for a temporary injunction that would have taken him off forced administrative leave and allowed him to return to running the 8,000-student district.
Waronker and his attorney, Frederick Brewington of Hempstead, vowed afterward to continue the fight in the federal court system and bring out what they called proof of corruption and mismanagement in the district.
“Much more will come out as this progresses,” said Waronker, who earlier this month issued an “open letter” to the Hempstead community detailing what he has called efforts by three trustees on the five-member school board to undermine his reforms. “Hopefully we will root out all the corruption and make things better for the kids.”
LaMont Johnson, who is among the board majority that voted to put Waronker on administrative leave with pay, said, “I respect the judge’s decision.”
Standing outside the courtroom in Central Islip after the proceeding, Johnson said the board is moving toward finalizing an improvement plan to send to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia by week’s end that would “meet the commissioner’s directive to put students first.”
Waronker, who started work as Hempstead’s schools chief on June 2 at an annual base salary of $265,000, was placed on administrative leave seven months later, on Jan. 9. He was shelved after board control flipped over to the new majority — Johnson, David Gates and Randy Stith.
The board’s 3-2 vote on the forced leave came at the end of a raucous meeting in the Hempstead High School auditorium during which the superintendent was jeered and shouted down by members of the public when he tried to speak. That action also meant that Waronker, 49, a former principal who had a record of turning around dysfunctional schools in New York City but no experience as a suburban superintendent, has been barred from Hempstead school property.
On Jan. 19, Waronker sued in federal court, contending that his removal from the district amounted to a punitive suspension. He also said his First Amendment right to speak out against long-festering problems in the district and his 14th Amendment right to due process before being disciplined had been violated.
During Tuesday’s court hearing, Brewington added a dramatic touch to his argument that his client had been stigmatized. The attorney screened a videotape of the Jan. 9 board meeting that showed Hempstead residents singing “Hit the Road, Jack” after Waronker had been placed on leave.
“The stigma here is so thick you can cut it with a knife,” Brewington said.
Hurley, while agreeing the video scene was troubling, said the superintendent’s case had been argued “strenuously but not convincingly.”
The judge rejected the argument that Waronker had been stigmatized or that he had suffered material loss, noting that the superintendent is continuing to receive pay and benefits. He also dismissed the superintendent’s claims that his constitutional rights had been violated.
In placing Waronker on paid administrative leave, Gates, Johnson and Stith said that the superintendent had to be kept off school grounds while investigators look into allegations of mismanagement under his administration. Response papers, filed by the district on Jan. 22, detailed seven specific areas that are being probed.
Jonathan Scher, an attorney for the district, defended the board majority’s decision in court on Tuesday.
“It’s perfectly appropriate for an employee to be put on leave during an investigation,” Scher said.
One investigation into Waronker’s tenure deals with his helping arrange a $450,000 contract between Hempstead schools and the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit consulting agency that he founded before becoming superintendent. Waronker has said that the agency’s help was sorely needed to improve Hempstead’s classroom instruction, and that his superintendent’s contract with the district bans his drawing compensation from NAI.
Testimony in court on Tuesday revealed that Nassau BOCES, a regional schools services agency, began investigating NAI’s contract with the Hempstead district after a former district employee reported that bidding on the arrangement might have been handled improperly. A BOCES spokeswoman had confirmed on Monday that it was looking into the contract at the request of the state Education Department.
With Waronker placed on leave, Regina Armstrong, an associate superintendent with 28 years’ experience in Hempstead as a teacher and administrator, has been put in charge as acting superintendent.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misquoted a portion of Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson’s response to U.S. District Court Judge Denis Hurley’s decision.