In the latest news to rock Hempstead Public Schools, its board of education voted recently to bring charges against former Superintendent Shimon Waronker, who has been suspended with pay since January.
Waronker, who was hired in May 2017 to help usher in sweeping reforms, had alleged corruption in the embattled district, which has struggled for decades with violence, one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates, school board infighting, poor attendance and crumbling classrooms. The charges leveled against Waronker by the board include bid-rigging, conflict of interest, official misconduct, and dozens of other charges. His attorney called the charges “false and contrived,” arguing that the board is attacking the credibility of his client to try and mask its own misdeeds, mismanagement and theft.
“What is [a shame] is that this board of education has chosen to follow a path of denial of the real concerns facing the district and the children of Hempstead,” Waronker’s attorney, Frederick Brewington, said in a statement.
The charges stem mainly from Waronker’s using New American Initiative (NAI), a nonprofit he founded prior to his hiring to reform the district. Waronker has repeatedly claimed that he had severed ties with NAI and was no longer receiving any compensation from the organization.
“What we are looking at in this affidavit is the latest round in an ongoing battle between political factions vying to control Hempstead schools,” says Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor of teaching, learning and technology, noting that he was not defending the decision to hire Waronker.
Singer adds that Waronker was hired by a former board majority that was well aware of his involvement with NAI and that Waronker never hid this involvement.
“His relationship with New American Initiative appears to be one of the reasons he was hired,” Singer says. “The affidavit makes clear that the former school board majority approved his fast-track contract with the organization.”
In part, the charges state, “You misled the district and expressly misrepresented the facts, pretending that you no longer had a professional or financial relationship with the NAI, implying falsely that your interests in the NAI had been severed, and deceptively presenting your relationship and interests in the NAI in the past tense.”
Singer adds that the other examples of claimed “gross misconduct” all involve ongoing problems in the district, especially deteriorating building and grounds and gang-related violence.
“Waronker did not cause these problems and there is no way he could have addressed them in the short period he was actively superintendent,” Singer says. “What is clear is that this is fundamentally a political battle for control over the Hempstead school district.”
On the front lines of that battle are board members facing questions of their own. The board majority is affiliated with Hempstead for Hempstead, a civic group led by a convicted sex offender. One board member, Randy Stith, is a former Hempstead village police officer who was arrested in April on charges of theft and fraud.
Najee Jeremiah, the founder of the educational technology company YsUp, says the main problems in the district were the Alverta B. GRay Shultz Middle School and Hempstead High School, his alma mater.
“There are so many different reasons why kids fight in the halls, drop out of school and join gangs … it’s a very complex problem,” Jeremiah says. “I don’t think the district really needs a new superintendent to take over things but what they do need is like a Joe Clark type character,” he says, referring to the tough principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the film Lean on Me who sought to bring order to a chaotic urban East Side High school in Paterson, New Jersey.
Jeremiah, who graduated 11th in his class and then went on to Howard University, says they have some “really great teachers in Hempstead High School and that’s where people get things messed up,” he said. Many students face economic adversity that extends into their schooling; Jeremiah recalls, for example, a friend who had to drop out and get a job to help his parents, who were about to lose their home.
Both a state comptroller audit and state education department review are ongoing in the district and there remains the specter of a state takeover of the district.
At press time, Waronker had yet to decide on whether the hearing on the charges is public or private.