By Kraig Klein and Louis Pagillo
A bill meant to bolster the graduation rate of the Hempstead School District of Long Island, New York by creating a special panel of monitors has been trapped in limbo since July, leaving both residents and faculty members waiting to see what happens next at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.
The bill, passed by the New York State Assembly on June 19, would create a special panel of “monitors” to supervise the Hempstead School District, which has come under fire for having annual graduation rates less than 50 percent. The special panel would have executive power over both the Hempstead Board of Education and the Superintendent. However, the bill has yet to be signed by Governor Andrew Mark Cuomo, and both proponents and opponents of the bill are starting to lose their patience.
“The bill is counter-intuitive and counterproductive because [the state is] using taxpayer money funds to pay monitors,” Hempstead Board of Education Vice President Carmen Ayala said during phone conversation.
Ayala says that the bill is unnecessary and is politically-motivated. She claims that the school district is improving on its own, and that the school’s graduation rate has increased by 20 percent since 2017. According to the New York State Education Department’s database, the rate has only increased from 37 percent in 2017 to 44 percent in 2018. The state’s graduation rate in 2018, by comparison, was 80 percent.
“I believe the governor should veto this bill and send the message that he will not be used as revenge by legislators who did not do their homework,” Ayala said.
Ayala argues that the bill is part of a revenge tactic by former board of education member Melissa Figueroa. Figueora called for an audit of the school district’s finances in 2017, after allegations surfaced accusing the district of misusing a $25 million surplus and winding up with an $8 million deficit. However, a fire on January 27 of that year at the district’s Marguerite Rhodes School burned all of the records. A later audit conducted by financial firm Plante Moran found that the district had several millions of dollars of suspicious payments on its payroll.
The district’s press representative Nicole Epstein said that the bill would usurp the power of the Board of Education, which is voted on by the community, by allowing the state appointed monitors to veto their decisions.
“This is something you need to leave in the hands of a community,” she said. “They’re trying to literally hijack a democratic election.”
Figueroa now works under Assemblywoman Taylor Raynor Darling, who represents the town and proposed the bill in the state assembly back in June. The monitoring bill is cosponsored by Assemblywoman Darling and Senator Kevin Thomas. Darling has voiced her concerns over the bill not being passed, CBS News reported on August 14.
The bill is what the district needs to bring back power to its people, Figueroa said.
“You don’t have to be a lawyer to see that this a broken system,” she said. “There is corruption in the district. The community has failed for 30 years… the children have been failed.”
The bill has divided parents in the district. Those against the bill argue that if the bill overrides the board of education’s decisions, it would be equivalent to stripping parents of their voices.
“Parents should not lose their voices,” Hempstead parent Melissa Rutty, whose daughter attends the district’s David Paterson elementary school, said. “Their children go here, and they should keep their voice.”
Some parents, however, remain undecided.
“Our voice as a community wouldn’t be heard,” Latoya Harrison, another parent whose child attends the same school, said. “On the other hand, I know a lot of people who don’t voice their concerns.”
Supporters argue that the bill will address the community’s concerns.
“We parents are treated like we don’t have power by the district,” Peggy Perkins, another parent at David Paterson, said. “We want that power back,” she said.
Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond in time for publication. There is no statement yet as to whether or when he will sign the bill.