Alan Krawitz

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Charges A Sign of Hempstead School District Power Struggle

Ex-Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker

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.

Enduring Struggles in Hempstead School District

The Hempstead School District's troubles run deep.

The multitude of complex problems plaguing the Hempstead School District have made headlines across the region.

From persistent rumors of a state takeover of the district to ongoing battles against school-related violence, corruption, sub-par academics and school board in-fighting, residents and educators alike agree there are no easy answers.

“I think that Hempstead has passed the point of no return as a failed school district,” says Hofstra University Professor Dr. Alan Singer, who teaches learning technology. He
thinks the state should take over the district with the “goal of consolidating its schools with surrounding communities.”

The idea of consolidating Hempstead with surrounding districts such as Uniondale and Garden City to “end racial imbalances” has been floated since the early 1960s, according to The New York Times.

“It [the Hempstead School District] is a large employer for people who live in the town, so school board battles have often been about control over jobs, not about education,” Singer says, noting that the challenge is typical of urban minority communities.

“A more recent problem is,” Singer adds, “that higher-performing students from more economically stable family situations are drawn off by charter schools.”

This results in public schools having larger concentrations of students who are less prepared for learning, leaving teachers overwhelmed, Singer says.

Taylor Raynor, a Hempstead resident and business analyst who is challenging 30-year incumbent state Assembly Dep. Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, agrees that the district’s cultural differences need to be addressed.

“We must ensure that there is language and cultural support in the schools to help the students,” Raynor says. “We need more professionals who speak the student’s language… the majority of students speak Spanish. There is a definite need for more resources for students whose first language isn’t English.”

Raynor, who recently formed an educational advocacy group called Save Hempstead Students, adds that safety issues include a lack of bus transportation, which forces students to traverse violence-prone neighborhoods, and students having to walk across the busy Southern State Parkway entrance ramp to get to Hempstead High School.

Raynor and Singer say Hooper has not done enough to help the district and its students.

“As a public servant, you really need to be available,” Raynor says, comparing Hooper to a “firefighter… who is never around to put out fires.”

Raynor also alleged that Hooper does not collaborate with elected officials to get things done for the district. Former Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne Hall Sr. agreed, saying Hooper routinely “ignored” requests for help.

“I think Assembly Member Hooper’s political machinations are a good symbol for all the problems that confront the Hempstead community and its schools,” Singer says.

Recently, Hooper was asked about help she had provided for the Hempstead School District since 2009, when she helped secure a $200,000 grant for the district. She responded by talking about how she helped keep the Hempstead Stop & Shop grocery store from closing.

Despite Singer’s contention that there are few fixes to implement and that “most proposals are just gimmicks to avoid a state takeover and to provide the state with an excuse not to take responsibility to educate the children of Hempstead,” a recent report from state appointed adviser Jack Bierwirth provided some hope for improvement.

Bierwirth’s report to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia notes that progress has been made in several areas, including a more cohesive school board that seems more willing and capable to pursue corruption. In addition, strides had been made in developing an accept- able budget for 2018-2019 as well as much-needed improvements in safety and security, including upgrading security video cameras and hiring more security personnel.

Other bright spots include more than 30 graduates this year who were awarded the Seal of Bi-Literacy, an award given by a school or district to recognize students proficient in two or more languages. Also, the 2018 valedictorian will be attending Harvard and the 2018 salutatorian will be attending Yale.

“During the fall there was a fight in the high school on an almost daily basis,” Bierwirth notes. “But, the climate improved significantly at the end of January and remained much more positive and much safer through the end of the school year.”

Still, other problems in the district persist, such as unchecked overtime, district-wide favoritism, and “serious deficiencies” regarding the district’s nutrition and food services.

Will State Take Over Troubled Hempstead Schools?

The New York State Education Department in Albany is eyeing the Hempstead School District.

Despite persistent struggles with declining graduation rates, violence, alleged corruption, and overall school board turmoil, the verdict is still out on whether the New York State Education Department (NYSED) will step in and appoint an outside “receiver” or manager to take operational control of the district.

A letter from the NYSED’s Office of Accountability late last month revealed more disturbing details about the district’s problems with accurately reporting data, citing numerous instances of errors and discrepancies. Officially, the department said the situation in the Hempstead District was still under review.

However, sources within the department say the decision about a takeover may be made this fall, after the district submits data from the 2017-2018 school year. Previous data examined was from the 2016- 2017 school year.

A spokesperson for the department also noted that special legislation would have to be passed before any takeover could occur, which means it would have to wait until the next legislative session starts in 2019. The only time New York has taken control of a school district was in the 2002 takeover of the Roosevelt School District.

Among the numerous problems noted by the SED included inaccuracies in reporting, where student performance was vastly overstated, such as a district report that said that 90  percent of students who entered grade 9 in the 2014-15 school year earned five or more credits during the 2016-17 school year (one credit equals a yearlong course).

But a department transcript review found that only 57 percent of those students earned five or more credits.

Other reporting issues included inflated graduation rates that could not be verified by state officials as well as troubling student attendance data.

Further, the letter also warned the district to “please note that if the district again reports inaccurate data to the Department, the Commissioner [MaryEllen Elia] may be unable to determine that the school has made Demonstrable Improvement, which would result in the appointment of an Independent Receiver to the school.”

As a school that has not met state and federal standards for at least 10 years, Hempstead High School has the dubious distinction of being the only school on Long Island classified as “persistently struggling,” by a three-year-old law targeting troubled schools.

At the direction of Education Commissioner Elia, the district has been working with a state appointed adviser, Dr. Jack Bierwirth, and has also been instructed to submit monthly progress reports on various areas of concern including school safety and security, high school instruction, and budgetary and fiscal operations.

The question of state control at the Hempstead District has been a fluid one, at least since this past February when the NYSED said it would not take control of the district, mainly due to a timely improvement plan that was submitted and deemed acceptable by the NYSED.

Moreover, state control is not generally seen as a panacea for the Hempstead District’s many ills.

Alan Singer, a professor of education at Hofstra University, told The New York Times that the takeover of the Roosevelt School District was an “expensive disaster” that achieved only moderate progress.

The United Federation of Teachers said any plan to use “receivership” to fix low-performing schools has had two decades’ worth of “unimpressive results.”

Examples of those unimpressive results include in 2002 when Pennsylvania turned 45 low-performing Philadelphia schools over to private managers. Teacher departures at those schools were as high as 80 percent, according to the Pennsylvania-based Perspectives on Education Journal.

Education experts argue that alternate strategies, such as intervention programs, trained support staff, enrichment, and access to opportunities might prove to be more productive approaches to failing schools than state takeovers.

Hempstead Residents Form Educational Advocacy Group

Taylor Raynor.

A group of Hempstead school parents, students, and community members announced Monday the formation of a new educational advocacy group called Save Hempstead Students.

The group is being led by Taylor Raynor, a 34-year-old business analyst who is also challenging the 18th district’s 30-year incumbent Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) in the Sept. 13 primary. Speaking at a news conference attended by about a half-dozen local community members, Raynor, a Democrat, delivered a sharply worded message to Hooper.

“We are putting you on notice,” Raynor said. “You have failed the students of the Hempstead School district. We cannot, should not and will not stand by any longer and allow your failures to impact our childrens’ future. We are not here to just survive, we are here to thrive.”  

While Raynor didn’t get into specifics regarding her group’s efforts, she said they would “brainstorm” and work on real solutions before classes begin on Sept. 5.

Raynor did say that the more than 8,000 student Hempstead School District’s long list of problems include mismanagement of state funds, rises in dropout rates and double digit drops in graduation rates, to 39 percent in 2017.

She also talked about a lack of bus transportation in the district that was a safety concern given that some students must walk through neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.
Raynor also added that some Hempstead students have gone without heat during winter months and still others have been forced to take classes in trailers in front of schools.

In a May letter from the State Education Department, the Hempstead district was warned that continued reporting inaccuracies of district data could result in an eventual state takeover of the district.

Raynor noted that under Hooper’s watch, adequate funding for the district has not been provided and that the district has “crumbled.”

“For 30 years, Hooper has been responsible for the deterioration of the Hempstead School district, which is why we’re here today, our mission is to fight for our students’ right to quality education,” Raynor said. 

Former Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne Hall Sr, who lost his election last year after holding office for 12 years, was no fan of Hooper, comparing her incumbency to a “dictator that gets into power and stays there.” Hall added that she has done nothing for Hempstead residents and that she’s been allowed to get away with “doing nothing for far too long.”

“Hooper doesn’t care about this district,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, she keeps getting elected because she’s in a heavily Democratic district.”

Reached by phone, following the news conference, Hooper was asked about other help she has provided for the Hempstead School District since 2009, when she helped secure a grant of $200,000 for the district.

When asked to clarify the statement, Hooper again repeated: “The Stop & Shop grocery store, which is located in the village of Hempstead, shall remain open due to the intervention of the deputy speaker.”

In May, Stop & Shop officials confirmed that Hooper was involved in the company’s decision to change course and keep its Hempstead Village store open. Initially, the company had sought to close the store due to under-performance.

The Landing at Jones Beach: Fine Dining by The Sea

After opening last year at Jones Beach State Park, The Landing is gearing up for an even bigger sophomore season of hosting weddings, reunions, special events — and most of all, fine dining.

Located inside the venerable second-floor Marine Dining Room in the historic West Bathhouse, the restaurant and event space features a full bar and two outdoor patios while retaining the Art Deco vibe that master builder Robert Moses originally created when the building opened in 1931.

“We are extremely excited, lucky and grateful to be able to provide catering and food service at The Landing,” says Frank “Turtle” Raffaele, CEO and founder of The Landing at Jones Beach.

The Landing joins two other restaurants of the same name — one at Pier 45 in Manhattan and the other in Long Island City — that are part of New York City-based COFFEED, a food service company and coffee roaster.

The Landing’s debut comes as the West Bathhouse is undergoing more than $16 million in capital improvements.

The menu is New York-centric, featuring local beers, wines, and seafood as well as locally sourced vegetables. Highlights include Duck Empanadas, Blue Point Oysters, Pulled Pork and Honey Lime Sea Bass.

Raffaele believes The Landing’s ocean views, private terraces and an extravagant bridal suite will make it one of the top wedding destinations in New York State.

“Jones Beach is a part of Long Island culture, part of people’s families and their history,” says Stephanie Thornton, The Landing’s catering manager. “It is a privilege to be a part of it.”

For Raffaele, whose first job was working as an adviser for a former New York City Parks Commissioner, he sees this as his life’s work as coming full circle.

“I have an abiding affection for parks,” he says. “My role with The Landing is much more than just food and beverage … It’s been a part of my life for a long time.”

The Landing at Jones Beach is located in the West Bathhouse at Jones Beach State Park, Ocean Parkway, Wantagh. They can be reached at 516-785-0012 or landingatjonesbeach.com

Chef Catherine Schimenti Opening Baked By The Ocean

Catherine Schimenti.

Upscale pastry chef Catherine Schimenti left home on Long Island at 17, only to return 20 years later to open her new bakery, Baked by the Ocean, in Long Beach.

Admitting that “cooking has always been in my blood,” the down-to earth Schimenti, with her signature red-frame glasses and long braids, says she was encouraged by her parents as well as a teacher at Lynbrook High School to make her living in the kitchen.

“I always helped my mom do the baking, cooking at home,” she recalls. “It’s always been natural for me to make food for people.”

Schimenti, now 38, got an early start in the restaurant business working in a local pizzeria before scoring her first cooking gig as a teen at the now-defunct Porthole restaurant in East Rockaway. She did her culinary training at Johnson & Wales University in Providence before switching in her final year to focus on pastry arts exclusively.

“As opposed to traditional cooking, which is more like just turning a raw product into something,” says Schimenti, “there’s a real science to pastry, the blending of ingredients.”

Schimenti’s career took her to some of the finest restaurants, from Balthazar and Gramercy Tavern to Per Se in New York City, before being tapped to oversee pastry at Craft Steak in the Meatpacking District. Her pastry menu was so well received that Schimenti was summoned to Los Angeles to assist with Craft Steak’s LA debut.

“Moving to California was a big deal for me,” recalls Schimenti, who prides herself on being an LI girl.

Following Craft, she moved to San Francisco and joined the fourstar Michael Mina Restaurant as executive pastry chef and later helped to launch Mina’s Bourbon Steak. After arriving back in NY in 2016, Schimenti pursued her long-standing goal of opening her own bakery. She snagged an apartment in trendy SOHO and was “fully committed to looking for bakery space in NYC.”

While looking for real estate in the city, Schimenti consulted for Gelso & Grand in Little Italy, where she worked for a year, helping to revamp the restaurant’s pastry menu. She oversaw the creation of a nearly foot-long cannoli, which gave the venue some buzz.

“I continued to scout potential bakery spots on the Lower East Side, Tribeca, and even NOLITA,” she recalls, but prices were steep, often upwards of $20,000 rent per month. “I couldn’t find anything and that’s when I started coming out to LI every weekend, to
visit friends and family in Lynbrook and Long Beach.”

Schimenti eventually found her bakery location with a little help from her friend.

“I went to dinner and a friend ended up parking in front of a bakery with a for-lease sign,” she recalls. “That didn’t work out, but it led me to my current spot.”

Now that she’s set, Schimenti says her philosophy on pastry is simple.

“I’m going to focus on accessible desserts such as fruit tarts, salted peanut butter tarts, lemon and lime meringue tarts, specialty cakes and even some soft-serve ice cream, sure to be a summer favorite,” she says. “Traditional things with a twist.”

Also, she’ll serve up favorites like black and white and rainbow cookies, macaroons, homemade chocolate boxes, freshly baked cinnamon rolls, and donuts. But the cozy space with seating for 12 won’t be all desserts.

“Savory foods will also be served, such as salads of the day, toasts of the day, Quinoa bowls with veggies and brunch items on weekends,” she says.

And while many chefs are drawn to the glamour of TV, Schimenti eschews show biz.

“I was approached by producers who wanted me for a few cooking shows due to my ‘polished yet approachable,’ attitude, but my focus is on the bakery, not TV,” she adds. “I want my food to speak for itself.”

Baked by the Ocean, scheduled to open in late May, is located at 919 West Beech St. in Long Beach. They can be reached at 516-889-BAKEor bakedbytheocean.com.

Cuomo Talks Gains, Battles at Nassau Democratic Dinner

Gov. Andrew Cuomo teleconferenced in to the gala from Albany (Photo by Thomas DeJosia)

Despite being a last-minute no-show at a high-profile Nassau County fundraiser, Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to outline ambitious accomplishments from securing funds to improve the Long Island Rail Road to championing wind energy, all while reiterating his disdain for the Trump Administration and the GOP.

Nassau County Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs apologized for Cuomo’s absence to nearly a thousand guests at the committee’s annual spring dinner explaining that he was engaged in “tense,” last-minute budget negotiations in Albany. The state’s budget is due April 1.

During his speech, broadcast from Albany, Cuomo outlined numerous achievements including what he termed the “largest reconstruction in LIRR history,” by securing nearly $6 billion in state funds to help transform the railroad by adding additional tracks, renovating close to 40 stations and building critical infrastructure to increase train capacity by 80 percent.

“The LIRR will be ready to handle the next generation,” he said.

Saying that “politics is a means to an end, to do good things,” Cuomo cited economic progress on LI, pointing out that today there are almost 1.2 million private sector jobs, with unemployment on the island dropping from 7 to 4 percent.

Newly-elected Nassau County Executive Laura Curran called Cuomo a “great Democrat” who understands the importance of building the middle class and championing the Island.

The governor also spoke about ambitious environmental projects, such as one of the nation’s largest off-shore wind-energy arrays, to be built off Long Island called Empire Wind.

Highlighting his progressive record of accomplishments, Cuomo said he was proud of establishing the $15 minimum wage, a strong paid family leave program, and the closure of more prisons than any other administration in state history, thanks to newer sentencing solutions as alternatives to incarceration.

“We passed the marriage equality act four years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was discriminatory.”

And, on the heels of sweeping, national anti-gun protests, Cuomo said that New York’s Safe Act is the “smartest gun law in the country.”

The Safe Act vastly broadened gun regulations in the state following the Sandy Hook shooting which took the lives of 20 children and six adults in a Conn. elementary school.
Going forward, Cuomo said there is still much more work to do including more funding for education, better gun legislation and passage of “the best anti-sexual harassment legislation in the nation,” following extensive “me too” campaigns, detailing personal stories of sex harassment that have rocked the media and entertainment world in the last few months.

Taking aim at President Trump and the GOP, Cuomo said that “Republicans are savaging our state,” referring to the passage of a federal tax reform law, detrimental to Island taxpayers by eliminating long-standing property tax deductions.

“Democrats shouldn’t give Donald Trump one dollar for the wall,” he said. “Not one dollar.”

He added that Trump also never made good on his infrastructure program to build bridges.

“That’s what we in New York are about…building bridges, while he’s building a wall,” he said, referencing the replacement of both the old Kosciuszko Bridge in Brooklyn and The Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown.

Cuomo predicted “Democrats will challenge every Republican member of congress in the state in the next election.

“The blue wave that is growing has not even begun to crest.”

Attorney Kathleen Dee Han Dickson and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas
Attorney Howard Festerman and Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs
Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran