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Hempstead school district is on the brink of a state takeover

Students arrive at a building in the Hempstead

Students arrive at a building in the Hempstead School District. Credit: Johnny Milano

Utter inefficiency or intentional fraud.

Either way, the latest news from the Hempstead school district is alarming.

The state Education Department made a determination last week that could set the troubled district on the road to state control. SED declared it was unable to determine whether Hempstead High School has made sufficient improvement that would let it avoid being placed under the direction of an outside manager. The reason: the district’s inability to provide basic data about student performance that is required to make that determination.

The district reported to Albany that 90 percent of students who entered grade nine in the 2014-15 school year earned five or more credits in 2016-17. But state officials who examined student transcripts found only 57 percent of those students earned at least five credits that year (a credit being the equivalent of a full-year course). The information is critical because it shows whether students are making satisfactory progress toward graduation. For students entering in 2015-16, Hempstead reported 78 percent; the transcripts showed 54 percent.

The discrepancies are troubling. At best, the district’s procedures are so shoddy that data from student transcripts cannot be accurately compiled and transferred to a report to state officials. At worst, the data were manipulated. The state did not try to determine which scenario was true or whether credits on transcripts were properly given.

But there is ample reason to worry about manipulation. In 2013, the district was found to be systematically changing some students’ failing grades by rounding up final course grades of 63 and 64 to a passing score of 65. A 2014 audit for the Board of Regents found that the district had no grade-changing policies, that most grade changes for the students audited had no documentary support, and that many students with grade changes had enough absences that their ability to earn a passing score was suspect.

Compounding all this, the district’s board of education includes one member, Randy Stith, who is accused in an indictment of forging a letter of recommendation to get a job with the Hempstead Village police department. Stith is in no position to help oversee what the State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has demanded: that the district improve its data-collection systems to restore confidence in its numbers.

Elia now awaits data from the current school year to decide whether Hempstead High School requires an outside manager, appointed by Elia or by the district with Elia’s approval, who would have full managerial and operational control of the high school. This time, state-appointed adviser Jack Bierwirth is on the scene. Elia hopes, as do we, that he makes a difference. As Hempstead sadly keeps proving, it needs all the help it can get to make the grade.