Besides the Hempstead school district’s 37 percent graduation rate, crumbling schools, gang violence, and embattled superintendent, another vexing problem is that school officials just can’t stay out of trouble.
The district, mired in corruption for decades, is no stranger to school officials and employees alike being accused of wrongdoing. Last month, Andrew Hardwick, the district’s security director and former mayor of Freeport, was placed on leave by the school board for 60 days pending an unspecified investigation, although no charges were filed. And Annette Greer, the former president of the Hempstead Schools Civil Service Association, was charged with grand larceny for allegedly stealing more than $90,000 from the union during her four-year stint as president.
“The members of the Hempstead Schools Civil Service Association entrusted this defendant with their union dues to represent and support them, but instead she allegedly pocketed their money for her personal use,” Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said. Hardwick’s attorney Douglas Thomas told Newsday the matter concerned “something that was done at the business office,” although he said there were no criminal allegations.
Hardwick was hired in April 2015 to supervise the school district’s security operations at an annual salary of $90,000. Greer faces up to seven years in prison, if convicted.
The latest round of trouble comes after the Hempstead school board voted in August to bring charges against its suspended Superintendent Shimon Waronker, who had alleged numerous instances of corruption in the embattled district.
Waronker had been hired for his track record for turning around failing schools in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. Litigation is ongoing and Waronker’s fate has yet to be decided pending a likely public hearing.
Randy Stith, currently a trustee on the school board, was arrested in April and pleaded not guilty to charges that he had falsified a document to become a Hempstead police officer as well as stealing thousands of dollars from the Hempstead Fire Department when he was a volunteer firefighter.
In September of last year, Theresa Cucina, a 55-year-old Hempstead High School theatre teacher, was accused of allegedly purchasing dozens of computers using school district money and then selling them for personal profit. Cucina was charged with grand larceny in the case.
In 2012, Hempstead Schools groundskeeper Johnie Tyson was arrested for stealing scrap metal from several Hempstead school playgrounds, selling the metal to local scrap dealers and then pocketing the cash. Tyson was charged with criminal mischief and petit larceny.
Some in the community have wondered why the Hempstead School District has been so riddled with corruption as compared to surrounding districts, such as Uniondale and Garden City.
“In poorer communities like Hempstead, the school system is a major employer and source of contracts which ties it into the local political machine,” says Alan Singer, a professor of Learning Technology at Hofstra University. “The result seems to be a greater propensity toward small-scale corruption.”
He adds that in more affluent communities corruption happens on a much grander scale, recalling that Long Island is also home to infamous schemers Bernie Madoff, Dean Skelos, and Joseph Margiotta.
While former Hempstead school board member Gwen Jackson agrees that corruption in the district has gone unchecked, she also lays much of the blame for the district’s woes on lack of oversight.
“Corruption, nepotism, and cronyism have been allowed to grow and fester in Hempstead for decades,” says Jackson. “Instead of dealing with these issues the State continues to pour millions of dollars into a failing school district, appoints a distinguished educator to oversee the operations of the district and to report back to the commissioner. That isn’t the answer.”
Jackson, who was part of the board that hired Shimon Waronker to try and turn things around, still believes things can change.
She is adamant that the state should be held accountable for its failures and would like to see changes that include an independent oversight committee to monitor the actions of the board, state monitor Jack Bierwirth, and all departments as well as reinstating Waronker and giving him the necessary resources to root out corruption, nepotism and cronyism that have plagued Hempstead for decades.
Jackson warned that “The Hempstead School District has a losing team,” and unless it changes its roster, “generations of students will continue to fail.”