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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Getting Hempstead School District back on track

Hempstead's Acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong on Feb. 14.

Hempstead's Acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong on Feb. 14. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The era of state legislators steering clear of the troubled Hempstead school district is over.

Assemb. Taylor Raynor and Sen. Kevin Thomas were elected in November to replace veteran lawmakers (Earlene Hooper and Kemp Hannon, respectively) who did little to help the school district. On Sunday, the newcomers filed legislation to create a three-person state-appointed board to monitor the district’s affairs.

The school district has characterized this as coming out of the blue but the lawmakers did not act unilaterally. Raynor said she and Thomas held several meetings in Albany that included Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and her staff, representatives from the state teachers union, and State Senate education committee chair Shelley Mayer.

“The support of most of the people in the room was amazing because everyone understands it’s been a long time coming,” Raynor told The Point Tuesday.

The jumping-off point, she said, was the most recent report from Jack Bierwirth, a former schools superintendent who has been functioning as a state-appointed “distinguished educator” to monitor and advise the school district. Prominent in the report, as in his earlier versions, was a concern about Hempstead’s poor governance.

“It was an SOS situation,” Raynor said. “There’s no governance here. They’re never going to make it for the children.”

The bill calls for the education commissioner to appoint two monitors and the state comptroller to pick one, and the monitors would provide academic and financial oversight, including approving and disapproving expenses and appointments of district superintendents.

Told that the plan is reminiscent of the state’s attempt to run the Roosevelt school district, which was generally considered a failure, especially in its early stages, Raynor said their Hempstead proposal is different.

“The community was not part of the process. They were governing from 175 miles away in Albany, that’s why it didn’t work,” Raynor said about Roosevelt, which is also in her legislative district. “We need to be open to other things.”

But Raynor also is aware that not everyone in Hempstead has embraced the idea.

“Some do, others don’t. The ones that do welcome it, they know that now we have change in Sen. Thomas and myself,” she said. “But not everyone is there. A lot of people have benefited from the divisiveness. A lot of people have a hand in the $215 million cookie jar. And a lot of people are connected to those people.”

With the legislative session scheduled to end Wednesday, Raynor knows its chances of passage this year are slim. But she’s still pushing the bill; the urgency, she says, demands it.

“We don’t have another six months to wait for. We didn’t have the last 20 years to wait for,” she said. “We are failing our kids.”