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Hempstead schools dispute set to return to federal court next week

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker at a special school

Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker at a special school board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A federal judge pushed to next week the Hempstead school district case involving Shimon Waronker, the superintendent placed on administrative leave by the school board, following hours of arguments Tuesday from both Waronker’s lawyer and an attorney for the district.

U.S. District Court Judge Denis Hurley, after a session that lasted about an hour past the court’s usual 5 p.m. closing time, did not render a decision on Waronker’s request for an injunction against the board and immediate reinstatement to the post. The judge set the next court date for Jan. 30.

Frederick Brewington, the Hempstead attorney representing Waronker, challenged the legality of the board’s Jan. 9 decision, which also barred the superintendent from district property.

Brewington, who filed suit Friday against the district, argued that the board’s actions violate Waronker’s constitutional free speech and due process rights.

The attorneys representing the district filed papers regarding seven investigations being conducted into matters the district attributes to Waronker’s actions or inactions.

Jonathan Scher, the Carle Place attorney representing the district in labor matters, asked Hurley to “give us time to investigate, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Hurley acknowledged the importance of the case.

“This school district has been a disaster for many years,” the judge said, citing low graduation rates and student dropouts.

Waronker’s lawsuit names as defendants the district, its Board of Education and trustees David Gates, LaMont Johnson and Randy Stith — the panel’s current majority, who voted 3-2 to place Waronker on administrative leave with pay.

Regina Armstrong, an associate superintendent who is a longtime administrator in the district, is serving as acting superintendent.

Waronker, a self-styled education reformer with a record of turning around unsafe and low-performing schools in the New York City system, took the helm in Hempstead on June 2 under a four-year contract approved 3-2 by a board that had a different makeup and majority.

The balance of power on the board shifted in November, with Gates, Johnson and Stith gaining the majority. Since then, Waronker’s tenure has been marked by repeated clashes with the panel.

In addition to this dispute, the long-troubled Hempstead district currently is under intensive state scrutiny.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia last fall appointed veteran educator Jack Bierwirth as a special adviser to the district, with a wide-ranging mandate to examine all of its operations and report back to her. His Jan. 8 report described areas of academic, safety, and fiscal failures and cited governance as the “single most significant barrier” to the district’s ability to educate its students.

The district, in court papers filed Monday, gave more detail into the matters it is investigating, which include:

  • Two separate probes about the circumstances of the district’s former contract with the New American Initiative, a Brooklyn nonprofit that Waronker had founded before becoming superintendent. According to the court papers, the investigations are being conducted by the Nassau BOCES regional district and a special counsel for the Hempstead district. The school board canceled that $450,000 contract.
  • An investigation by the district’s special counsel into alleged failure to submit a Community School Grant on time.
  • A district investigation of Waronker into alleged failure to implement maintenance and repair plans to address boilers and pipes in district buildings.
  • A district investigation into the superintendent’s alleged failure to implement a Violence Suppression and Security Plan at the middle and high schools.
  • A district probe of Waronker’s alleged failure to report to the board the circumstances involving the termination last fall of Hempstead High School Principal Stephen Strachan. The board rehired Strachan last week after firing Kenneth Klein, whom Waronker had put in place as high school principal — although the board at the same time hired Klein in a special administrative post.
  • A district probe into the alleged disenrollment, by Waronker, of approximately 300 high school students.

Waronker, in an interview after Tuesday’s hearing, disputed all of the accusations.

He said he only had been shown the seven areas of investigation during an executive session of the board.

They were not given to him to review, Waronker said, and he was surprised to be blamed for the condition of school water and sewage pipes, which had been deteriorating for decades before his arrival in June.

In court papers filed Tuesday, Brewington wrote that the district “failed to articulate just how Dr. Waronker would impede any of the areas listed as possible investigations.”

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