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Editorial: Worries building in Hempstead

Hempstead High School.

Hempstead High School. Credit: Joel Cairo

The Hempstead school district has big problems. Now the board of education has hatched a big plan. It wants to demolish and rebuild nine schools. The facilities in Hempstead, one of Long Island's poorest-performing districts, are indeed an issue. But this proposal does not merit a passing grade.

The buildings are old. And overcrowding is a concern: The use of several dozen trailers as classrooms is troubling; most of them are for elementary school kids as young as kindergarten-age. But it is far from clear that widespread demolition and reconstruction is the answer.

Our concern is the plan is a smoke screen to give the appearance of action, diverting attention from the increasing scrutiny the board is receiving for its dysfunction, corruption and lack of transparency -- on display in a raucous community meeting Tuesday night.

In the most recent inspection reports submitted by the district to the state Education Department, seven of the nine buildings received a "satisfactory" overall building rating and an eighth was rated "unsatisfactory." The ninth, Rhodes Elementary, has been closed since 2004 because of deterioration. While a building with a satisfactory rating might need replacing, the district has the burden of making that case. Hempstead has yet to approach the state. And in only one of the eight inspections did the district abide by state requirements that it consult with its health and safety committee before establishing a rating. Also worrisome is the insistence of board members that renovation would be more costly than reconstruction, as they acknowledge they do not have estimates for either.

What raises suspicions even more about the purpose of a massive reconstruction is the district's eagerness to hire a consultant to help secure funding -- for a plan that does not yet exist, especially a plan that by law would be eligible for state reimbursement of 88 percent because Hempstead is considered a poor wealth district. What exactly would the consultant do?

We all have a stake in the vetting of this plan. Taxpayers from outside the district will cover the bulk of project costs that could approach $350 million, based on state figures. Meanwhile, there is a massive redevelopment project in Hempstead Village, with the potential to revitalize the community. That blossoming won't happen if its school system remains a pernicious vacuum that sucks away the futures of its young.

Hempstead's students should have the best facilities in which to learn, but the process to accomplish that must be cost-effective and transparent. Hempstead's school board conducts too much of its business in secret, has not seriously taken on the task of reducing tensions between black and Latino students, and makes too many leadership changes. Two schools, including the high school, are on the state's "priority" list, meaning they rank among the lowest 5 percent in the state, and the district's graduation rate is Long Island's lowest.

Some improvement to the facilities is essential. The Rhodes school must be torn down and rebuilt, and children must be moved out of trailers. But simply demolishing a raft of buildings does nothing to dismantle an educational culture that seems to operate more for the benefit of the adults in control than for the children they are supposed to serve. We have to get Hempstead's schools right, for the sake of the students the district is charged to educate.