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Good Morning

Serious needs in two Long Island school districts

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, center, addresses the media

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, center, addresses the media outside the Hempstead school district's administration building, flanked by Regent Roger Tilles, left, and Jack Bierwirth in Dec. 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

The students in the Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts can’t wait a generation or two for improvements. For these young people to get the educational foundations needed to achieve prosperous and productive lives, their schools must get much better fast.

While immediate change is needed, it was unwise for state legislators to pass bills unveiled in the waning hours of the session to appoint state monitors for the districts. The monitors are likely the right step, but it’s not right that the communities involved had no chance to discuss them first.

The legislation for Hempstead was introduced by two freshmen, Sen. Kevin Thomas of Levittown and Assemb. Taylor Raynor of Hempstead, and for Wyandanch by Sen. John Brooks of Seaford and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre of Wheatley Heights. The bills would create a three-member oversight board for Hempstead — two selected by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, one by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli — and a single monitor for Wyandanch chosen by Elia. All would be nonvoting members of the school boards tasked with reviewing and approving proposed budgets and fiscal plans, contracts, expenditures and travel. They also would be tasked with developing plans to improve academic performance, approving the hiring of future superintendents and creating conflict-of-interest policies for school board members.

Both districts need significant help. Hempstead already has a state-appointed “distinguished educator,” Jack Bierwirth, who reviews district operations, helps develop improvement plans, promotes student performance and writes reports. Those reports, and the figures on student achievement, show there is some progress in academics, but that positive momentum is threatened by continuous infighting and petty squabbles among school board members.

The graduation rate in Hempstead last year was just 44 percent. That’s 7 percentage points better than the previous year, but badly lags the 80 percent statewide rate and 88 percent Islandwide average. Only 24 percent of the district’s students in third through eighth grade are proficient in English, while 22 percent hit the mark in math. And an audit last year uncovered unconscionable fiscal practices.

Wyandanch’s challenges also are severe. After two budgets were voted down this spring amid a $9 million shortfall, the district is seeking cuts while dealing with a surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America. The graduation rate is 66 percent, but only 6 percent received advanced diplomas, a strong measure of college preparation. The district’s proficiency rates on state tests — 22 percent in English, 14 percent on math — are alarmingly low. Staffing is plagued by nepotism.

While the legislation surfaced suddenly, state Board of Regents members and respected regional education leaders helped formulate it. The state Education Department, which has said it needs more tools to address troubled districts, also had input. Now it’s up to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. He should listen to community members and other stakeholders, as well as experts with no vested interest in the outcome. If he determines that monitors will make a difference, he should move the plan forward. If not, then make the players put together a better proposal. Something has to be done soon.

 — The editorial board