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OpinionEditorial

Hempstead school board should be open to outside input

A report by a state-appointed adviser identified board infighting as the biggest barrier to providing good educations to students in Long Island’s poorest-performing school district.

Students work on lessons at Prospect School in

Students work on lessons at Prospect School in Hempstead on Jan. 19. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

It didn’t take long for the unauthorized release of an independent preliminary report on questionable Hempstead school finances to devolve into another food fight on the Hempstead district’s board.

Accusations by one board faction that the opposing faction had leaked the auditors’ report for political gain were unfortunate. So is last week’s lawsuit by allies of one faction against the other over an attempt to remove trustee LaMont Johnson from the board last year.

We understand the politics at play: School board elections take place Tuesday. But the dysfunction has been an ongoing crippling problem. A January report by state-appointed adviser Jack Bierwirth identified board infighting as the biggest barrier to providing a good education to the students in Long Island’s poorest-performing school district.

Board president Maribel Touré, whose seat is one of two being contested, said the focus should be on the auditors’ final report expected this summer. She’s right. Because the report’s preliminary findings for school years between 2014 and 2017 are troubling.

Among them:

  • Some employees’ net pay was greater than their gross pay, and at least one worker received pay for 11 months after termination.
  • Some employees received expense reimbursements and/or overtime that seemed excessive.
  • Some vendors received duplicate payments in the same amount, some payments were made on weekends when the district business office is supposed to be closed, and some tutors submitted bills for working with two students at the same time of day.
  • More than two dozen employees had no birth dates in a master file, and others were listed as being born on Aug. 31, 2017.

A 2014 audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli uncovered similar problems, like nearly a half-million dollars in inappropriate or questionable payments to staff and vendors. DiNapoli’s office is again auditing Hempstead; a report is likely coming in December.

Whether the findings indicate suspected criminal activity — which must be referred to Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas — or plain sloppiness, the school board has a lot of work to do to right this part of its listing ship. The crossfire adds unnecessary challenges to making the kind of progress Bierwirth has been guiding.

State officials and Nassau BOCES have deployed experts to Hempstead to offer assistance in areas like facilities, safety, technology and business; Hempstead officials, notoriously resistant to outside help, must seize the opportunity. Other local superintendents have offered input, as have officials from the state association of school boards. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa met with board members individually in January to stress the need for change, with Bierwirth serving both as sage and daily watchdog.

Changing Hempstead is an evolutionary process, not an overnight cure. Hempstead’s school board needs to keep its focus on the kids, not on each other.

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