Lawmakers contemplate takeover of troubled district

Lawmakers contemplate takeover of troubled district

(N.Y.) In what would be an unprecedented act of intervention, legislation pending in Albany would install a state-appointed panel to oversee the long-troubled Hempstead Union School District.

SB 6559, which passed out of the state Assembly last week and is likely to be sent shortly to the governor, would for the first time give an outside panel authority over district spending decisions including its budget, as well as all contracts and other expenses.

The proposed law would also give the monitor team the power to approve or disapprove the appointment of key district personnel including the superintendent.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo agrees and signs the bill, the state trustee would stay in place until June, 2024.

“We need to do something drastic,” Assemblywoman Taylor Rayon, D-Hampstead, one of the sponsors of the bill, told reporters. “We’ve sat here for decades. It’s time to do something, and on my watch, it will be done.”

Hempstead Union, which operates nine schools in Long Island’s Nassau County, has a long and troubled history of questionable financial decisions, election malfeasance and alleged test score manipulations.

Continuously ranked among the lowest-performing districts in New York, Hempstead drew the attention of the state department of education as long ago as 2004, when a team of experts was sent into the district to evaluate its academic, governance and fiscal operations.

A decade later, the New York State Comptroller audited the district in response to press reports related to improper spending and hiring practices.

Also in 2014, election fraud allegations surfaced in a disputed school board election. One year earlier, district officials were accused of routinely rounding up the test scores of thousands of students.

In 2017, the Commissioner of Education appointed an intervention specialist to meet with Hempstead school leaders and develop a plan for improving student outcomes, as well as district operations.

In his year-end report made in December, the specialist said that while there had been some improvement at the district, major problems persisted through 2018:

  • There were three different superintendents.
  •  There were significant problems with accuracy and completeness of student data, which affected the district’s reports to the state.
  • Over $2 million in improper charges to a state grant were discovered, resulting in a charge back to the general fund and a restatement of the 2016-17 financials.
  • Hempstead High School and two elementary schools had to be closed last winter because of frozen pipes and lack of heat due to an apparent failure to conduct proper preventive maintenance.

State Sen. Kevin Thomas, D-Levittown, the other sponsor of the takeover bill, said his intent wasn’t to eliminate all local control over the district.

“We are not cutting the board off at the knees,” Thomas told Newsday last week. “We are not removing the school board. But this district is in danger of going back to where we were decades earlier if we don't start putting students first.”

School district president LaMont Johnson told the paper that the Hempstead board would travel to the state capital to lobby against final adoption of the bill.

“This is not the time for the state to come in and pretend like they are helping the district,” Johnson said at a news conference last week. more