By Sara Ruberg and Niki Nassiri
The New York Education Department began interviewing candidates for the monitor position at Hempstead School District after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill mandating state-appointed oversight last week.
The original bill mandated three state-appointed monitors with veto power but changed to a single monitor. The new one specifies that a single monitor will have the power to pause or stop school board decisions they believe diservices the district. The New York State Assembly, who voted 140-1, strongly supported the measure.
“This bill was developed to pretty much figure out a way to make long term, sustainable plans for the Village of Hempstead,” Assemblywoman Taylor Darling, who cosponsored the bill, said.
Darling says the amendments were made because they did not want unelected advisors to have too much power over elected board members.The future monitor is expected to have experience in education law, understand school finances and be able to connect with the community.
Cuomo signed onto a version of the bill that states Hempstead, a district with about 7,600 K-12 students, will pay out of its budget for the monitor. The older version of the bill said New York State would fund the expenses.
“I do believe Hempstead is in need of some sort of oversight,” Karen Lopez, a 2014 Hempstead High School graduate and creator of the Alumni Association, said. “When I was there, there were definitely times I felt like there was something wrong.”
Graduation rate was at 42% when Lopez finished at Hempstead High School. Last spring, the graduation rate rose to 63% — 20% below the state average, according to New York State Education Department data. Even now, Lopez says her former teachers tell her the school environment has been getting worse.
A series of academic and financial struggles made local legislators write and propose the bill. But the introduction of school monitors sparked controversy among parents, the school board and other legislators.
Some school board members, like Vice President Carmen Ayala, thought that a school monitor would not impact students and served no purpose to the district. Ayala disagreed with the measure as she believes that the state should focus on other issues that plague the district, like facility updates, added transportation and increased open communication between the board, legislators and the community.
“Bottom line, we really need to try to work together, not waste taxpayer dollars on frivolous legislative remedies when we can come together,” Ayala said.
A state-appointed special advisor at Hempstead School District, Jack Bierwirth, offered financial guidance, academic advice and progress reports to the school board and superintendent. His final report explained significant issues in the district’s budget that could affect them in the long run.
“This is already a stressed school district,” Nicole Epstein, the school district’s representative, said, pointing to a 100-person layoff last May to help absorb payments to charter schools. “So now you add on this, another unfunded mandate.”
Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor of teaching, learning and technology, says he was disappointed the original version of the bill was not signed.
“The original bill had teeth,” Singer said. “The positive effect [of the new version] is that it does establish the state as responsible for what takes place in the schools of New York, but I don’t expect long term improvement.”
The monitor will stay in place at the Hempstead School District until June 2025 unless the law is renewed.