By Mike Adams and Nick Zararis
The Hempstead Union Free School District announced plans to train its Board of Education members to better cooperate with each other at a Feb. 1 Board meeting as part of an extensive reform plan aimed at fixing its troubled schools.
The district, which has the lowest graduation rate on Long Island, has become infamous for its raucous Board meetings. Rotating administration and political infighting have stymied the district for years and helped foster an environment that many parents consider unfit for their children’s education.
“I did not want my kids attending school in the district,” Patricia McNeil, a longtime Hempstead resident, said. “I actually gave up joint custody of my kids so they could attend school in Herrick.”
Board members vote in political blocs, and crucial decisions often come down to a 3-2 split, like the Jan. 9 call to place Superintendent Shimon Waronker on 60-day administrative leave. The Board granted themselves the authority to place administrators on leave in a 3-2 vote earlier at the same meeting.
Waronker, who has helped turn around troubled schools as a principal in New York City, was put on leave days after he published an open letter accusing the Board of sabotaging his reform initiatives. Waronker sued the district following his dismissal.
“Politics, self-interests, patronage, vendettas, threats, and cover-ups cannot rule the day,” Waronker wrote. “Our collective goal must be to elevate the standards for all involved in and attached to the Hempstead School District.”
The district also launched an investigation into Waronker’s tenure as superintendent over concerns he profited from a $450,000 contract the district signed with the New American Initiative, a non-profit organization he founded.
“My saying [about Waronker] was ‘skip skip skip to my lou, I’m coming to rob Hempstead too’,” Caprice Rines, a local activist and member of the district’s Community Engagement Committee, said. “[Waronker] had an agenda to rob our school.”
Neither Waronker nor his lawyer Frederick Brewington were able to provide comment at the time of this article’s publication, but according to court documents, the Superintendent’s contract with the district contains stipulations that forbid him from profiting from transactions with organizations with which he has affiliations.
The district’s administrative turnover rate has kept previous reform attempts from being successful, former Hempstead High School principal Reginald Stroughn said. Without consistency at the top, Stroughn claims, potentially useful changes are tossed out before they have time to take effect.
“Every time there’s a turnover, the people that come in don’t look at the programs that work and the programs that don’t work,” Stroughn said. “So there’s no conversation between the incoming administration and the outgoing administration…It takes three to five years to turn every building around, so if you’ve got a new principal every two years you don’t have time to do anything.”
Much of the district’s poor reputation comes from overly negative media coverage, Hempstead Board of Education trustee LaMont Johnson said.
“We have students that have proved that we could do just as well as any other district,” Johnson, who voted to place Waronker on leave and was unable to comment on the situation, said. “We had a student recently that had a full ride to Columbia University. We have students that are actually going to Ivy League schools now, we just need to have more students that achieve that type of success.”
On several occasions at the Jan. 9 meeting, Johnson yelled at Board Vice President Gwendolyn Jackson to speak into her microphone when talking.
While he found the board’s willingness to plan reforms encouraging, Bierwirth said the district will need to back up its proposals with action if it truly wants to turn itself around.
“I am enormously hopeful,” Bierwirth said at the meeting. “But this isn’t about hope and it isn’t about plans, it’s whether things get are going to get done or not. I can have all the hope in the world, but it’s whether things are being done…and that’s what I’m going to be paying attention to.”