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Hempstead school board fails to make decision on layoffs

Hempstead Board of Education vice president Carmen Ayala,

Hempstead Board of Education vice president Carmen Ayala, left, and interim Superintendent Regina Armstrong outside Hempstead High School on Tuesday. Credit: Chris Ware

Hempstead school board trustees huddled over the question of extensive staff layoffs for more than four hours Thursday, but failed to reach an agreement on proposals that, according to some, could "wipe out whole units" of employees.

The district, which is considered the poorest in Nassau County, faces the prospect of millions of dollars in personnel and program cuts for 2020-21. Financial pressures include rising costs of tuition payments to independent charter schools attended by district residents, along with a virtual freeze on state financial assistance. 

Growing strains on Hempstead's finances, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, led to tense confrontations among administrators and board members, who met in public around 5:15 p.m. after more than two hours in private session, then went back behind closed doors before adjourning at 8 p.m. This is the second consecutive year that staffing cuts have emerged as an issue in Hempstead, which last spring eliminated 100 positions for teachers and other employees.

"I'm calling on the administrators to make a sacrifice," said one trustee, LaMont Johnson, who said he was upset by the prospect of some employees losing jobs while others got raises. 

Interim Superintendent Regina Armstrong replied that no administrators were awarded "huge raises." 

"If we say we want to save jobs, then maybe everyone needs to take a pay freeze," Armstrong added, referring to all district employees. 

On Tuesday, all four board trustees approved a $225.4 million budget proposal that will be submitted to voters June 1. The plan calls for a zero hike in the district's tax levy, which is total revenues raised via property taxation. The planned budget, on paper, would raise spending about $3.8 million, or 1.7%.

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In reality, local officials reported, the district will have less to spend on its own students during 2020-21 than it has currently, because a growing part of its budget goes to students opting to enroll in public charter schools. District projections show that Hempstead's tuition payments to three of those independently run schools will rise from $43 million this year to $48.8 million next year, an increase of $5.8 million, or 13.5%.

Hempstead enrolls about 7,600 students in its own schools, and sends another 2,197 students to charter academies. Next year, charter enrollment from Hempstead is projected to grow to 2,472.

District officials have said they are doing their best, while schools are closed, to provide students with daily lunches, counseling and laptop computers essential for home instruction. Critics of the district have noted, however, that student test scores in some area charter schools top Hempstead's scores by wide margins. 

A state statute, adopted last spring, empowers the education commissioner to appoint a monitor to oversee Hempstead's finances, but no candidate has been named. 

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