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Chef Phil Hambleton Brings Flavor of Nawlins to Big Daddy’s Barbeque

Phil Hambleton, executive chef at Big Daddy’s Barbeque restaurant in Massapequa, presides over the Cajun eatery's 2019 Fat Tuesday celebration.

“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

For many, the quote is a cliché that’s mostly elusive. But for Phil Hambleton, executive chef at Big Daddy’s Barbeque restaurant in Massapequa, it’s his reality.

“For me, cooking has always come easy and it’s something I’ve never had to really think about,” says Hambleton, who has been lighting up the kitchen and diners’ palettes since age 13, having learned to cook by watching his grandparents at home.

Before landing at Big Daddy’s nearly eight months ago, Hambleton had spent eight years as the executive chef at George Martin’s Strip Steak House in Great River. And before that, he had worked in restaurants up and down the East Coast from Bally’s Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City to Tony Roma’s in Bayside.

“I’ve always pushed myself to learn new cooking styles and that’s what brought me to Big Daddy’s where I put a unique spin on smoked foods from pulled pork and beef to seafood,” Hambleton shares.

A seasoned team builder and supervisor, Hambleton is very hands-on when it comes to cooking.

“I’d never ask any of my staffers to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” he says.

Recalling his long restaurant career, Hambleton, 48, says that he went to work early in the 1980s, starting at the very bottom in the food service business as first a dishwasher, then a salad guy, and then a sandwich maker.

“I really worked my way up, it just was a natural progression,” says Hambleton, who grew up on Long Beach Island in New Jersey and attended the Culinary Institute of America.

He adds that he was doing so well in the restaurant business that he was going to quit high school but a teacher encouraged him to go to culinary school and really learn his craft.

“This teacher saw something in me and wanted me to keep on going,” he says.

Hambleton’s love of cooking was also his path to success.

“I went from a D student to an A student after I enrolled in culinary school,” he explains.

When he landed at George Martin’s in 2010, Hambleton recalled he wasn’t really planning to come out to Long Island but he drove a friend to a job interview and the owner said he was looking for an executive chef.

“Long Island reminded me of where I grew up, on Long Beach Island, being near the Shore, the salt air,” he says. “I’ve got salt in my veins…I like the shore, the beach.”

“There are many different personalities in the restaurant business and they often clash, so it was important for me to try and find a place where I could hang my hat,” he says.

Looking for something different, Hambleton says that barbeque was the total other side of the spectrum for cuisine.

“I’ve smoked everything here at Big Daddys’ from watermelons to traditional pork and beef, fruit and veggies,” he says.

While planning for Mardi Gras, Hambleton says he arranged for boiled crawfish from Louisiana and a huge, traditional New Orleans-style buffet on Fat Tuesday complete with live music, finger foods, appetizers, shrimp, alligator and pulled pork.

Specialties at Big Daddy’s include an authentic New Orleans-style Sunday brunch featuring items such as Jambalaya omelettes, crab cake benedict and chicken and waffles. Plus, Hambleton says all desserts are made from scratch, such as bananas Foster, brownies and raspberry cheesecake.

All of which brings to mind another maxim, Laissez les bons temps rouler, a Cajun French saying that means, “Let the good times roll!”

Big Daddy’s is located at 1 Park Ln. in Massapequa. It can be reached at 516-799-8877 or bigdaddysny.com

Hempstead School Superintendent Saga Continues

Suspended Hempstead Superintendent Shimon Waronker with his legal team during a January news conference. (Photo by Tab Hauser)

It’s been more than a year since the Hempstead School District’s controversial decision to suspend its embattled superintendent Shimon Waronker, but an end to the uproar it unleashed is nowhere in sight.

Waronker was suspended with pay amid allegations of official misconduct, bid-rigging and breach of contract in the district, the largest K-12 system in Nassau County, which has been plagued with troubles that include corruption, gang violence, subpar graduation rates, and political infighting since the 1960s. A judge dismissed Waronker’s federal lawsuit that sought reinstatement, but he’s still fighting.

“I was suspended with pay for no clear reason,” says Waronker, who added that the administration has neither scheduled a hearing in his case nor selected a hearing officer. “I tried to uncover neglect, abuse, and corruption in Hempstead that has gone unchecked in this district for decades.”

Waronker says that the district’s lawyers have “padded their pockets,” to the tune of nearly $810,000 in less than eight months working for the district on a variety of legal issues, with 45 percent being used in the case against him.

Waronker’s attorney, Frederick K. Brewington, produced law firm bills and school district documents showing that the district has diverted $500,000 from teacher salaries to pay the district’s lawyers, The Scher Law Firm. School board meeting minutes showed budget transfers from accounts labeled “Salaries Teachers 6-8” to accounts earmarked for “Arbitration Fees” and “Labor Counsel.”

“The board treats the district’s more than $200 million budget like its ‘game-board money,’” Brewington says.

“The cycle of failure in Hempstead is pathetic,” says Joseph Ortego, an attorney from the law firm Nixon Peabody who recently joined Waronker’s legal team.

Ortego believes the district needs a reformer such as Waronker, who has helped to turn around struggling schools in hardscrabble neighborhoods in the South Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn. Waronker, a Harvard grad and veteran educator, maintains he has a “moral mandate” to uncover abuse and corruption that has plagued the Hempstead district for decades.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Waronker says, quoting Frederick Douglass.

Despite the obstacles he’s faced, Waronker wants to return to his job and believes the children of Hempstead are worth the fight.

“This board repeatedly fails to make good decisions,” Brewington says.

Although a federal judge last month dismissed Waronker’s lawsuit, ruling it “has not set forth any actionable federal claims,” and the school board is now seeking attorney’s fees from Waronker, Brewington is not giving up.

“Some very wrong actions have been taken against Waronker, and we remain committed to seeing that our client’s rights are vindicated and that the law be fully and properly applied,” Brewington told Newsday after the ruling.

He was also skeptical of the work of New York State-appointed special adviser Jack Bierwirth, whose recent report on the district indicated “substantial progress” has been made in Hempstead schools.

Brewington and Waronker expressed “serious concerns” regarding Bierwirth’s findings. Brewington said more information would be forthcoming regarding the findings of the special adviser, but he did not elaborate. But, Bierwirth still has his supporters.

“The appointment of Jack Bierwirth to work with the board is a wise move, as the future of the district is directly dependent upon board leadership,” says Thomas Dolan, a former St. John’s University professor and superintendent pf the Great Neck Public Schools. “Good boards establish policy, work with the superintendent and otherwise stay out of the way.”

Hempstead Review Finds Progress, But Problems Remain

In his first annual report on the Hempstead School District, New York State-appointed adviser Jack Bierwirth painted a positive picture while emphasizing much work remains in the academically struggling, gang- and corruption-plagued district.

Bierwirth noted progress in special education and improved scores on state English language learner and math assessments. The graduation rate also improved to about 51 percent. The report credited the district with completing year-end financial reports on time and taking steps to address maintenance issues such as replacement of the Rhodes School, science labs and a track.

In a visit to the district, state Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said that “significant challenges” remain and the district is not yet back on track.

“The constant attention to the Hempstead District from the commissioner is making a difference,” Roger Tilles, Long Island’s State Regents representative, told reporters. “And it will continue to make a difference. [The district] can’t afford to slip back.”

Skeptics were not hard to find.

“The Hempstead school district, its children and the community do not have one more second to devote to the character development of its leadership or staff,” says newly elected state Assemb. Taylor Raynor (D-Hempstead).

Former Hempstead school board member Gwen Jackson says that Bierwirth “has painted a picture of the glass half-full and the Commissioner drank the Kool-Aid.”

Jackson believes an independent auditor should be appointed to monitor the district’s business practices.

“I am calling on our newly elected Assemblywoman Taylor Raynor and Senator Kevin Thomas and even the governor to send in an independent oversight committee to monitor the questionable decisions/practices of the board, and the daily operations of the district, especially in the business office,” she says.

Alan Singer, a professor of Learning Technology at Hofstra University and vocal critic of the state education department, also remains concerned.

“Hempstead High School continues to be rated by New York State as ‘persistently struggling,’’” he says. “ABGS Middle School is rated as ‘struggling.’ Yet both schools were credited with ‘Made Demonstrable Improvement’ with scores of 83 percent on the latest state education report.”

Singer says the report is “imaginary school progress” that seems to justify abandoning the children.

“In February 2018 the New York State Education Department announced it would not take over the failing school district,” Singer says. “Since then, it has done everything it can to justify that decision.”

 

Latest Lawsuit Against Hempstead School Board Adds To Corruption Claims

The Hempstead School District's troubles run deep.

The Hempstead school district has “rampant and corrosive corruption, waste, and gross illegalities,” a terminated deputy school superintendent claimed, in the latest federal lawsuit filed against the troubled district and members of its school board.

The plaintiff, Varleton McDonald, says he spoke with the state Education Department and was also questioned by the FBI about illegal practices in the district, according to court documents filed at Central Islip federal court on October 10. His attorney says McDonald’s January 17 firing was in retaliation for exposing the issues.

“We’re not sure what the district’s contentions are…the district has only expressed in public statements that Dr. McDonald’s allegations are false,” says Mark Goidell, McDonald’s attorney. “So, we still don’t know what the district’s position is, but we’re looking forward to flushing that out as the litigation goes forward.”

Besides the school district, the suit also names as defendants school board members David Gates, Randy Stith and LaMont Johnson. McDonald is asking for monetary damages for not only his loss of employment but also for mental anguish, damage to his reputation, diminished employment opportunities, and humiliation.

Goidell said that despite his client’s strong background and experience as an educational leader/reformer, McDonald has been unable to find suitable employment since his discharge, due to the “blemish” on his record resulting from the Hempstead school district’s action.

Sources say there are “multiple pending investigations” related to the Hempstead school district, which has long suffered from an array of problems including gang violence, cultural and racial tensions among the district’s black and Latino students, a 37 percent graduation rate, and illegal hiring practices, among many other issues.  

Some former school board members say McDonald was terminated not only because of his exposure of corruption and waste in the district but also his close connection to the embattled former Hempstead School District Superintendent Dr. Shimon Waronker, with whom he worked in New York City, helping to reform troubled, low-performing schools.

Waronker, who recommended McDonald to the board, has been on paid administrative leave since January 9, pending a hearing related to the board’s charges of allegedly breaching his contract.

Some of the gross financial improprieties McDonald became aware of that were cited in the suit included a side catering business being conducted by the district’s head of Food Services, utilizing the equipment and facilities of the district. Other improprieties included instances of grade-fixing for the purpose of getting more state aid in addition to an independent audit that found payroll discrepancies and unchecked overtime.   

Jonathan Scher, an attorney for the district and board members, told Newsday that the lawsuit “has no merit whatsoever,” and that the complaint’s allegations were “wholly fictitious and warrant the board asserting a character claim for defamation.”

But Gwen Jackson, also a former Hempstead board member, says McDonald was good for the district. Although McDonald had previously worked with Dr. Waronker in New York City, he was not selected by Waronker, she says.

“He [Dr. McDonald].…was interviewed by a committee consisting of teachers, administrators, principals, and staff,” she says. “He was selected by this committee. So, everything was done above board.”

She adds that McDonald understood Waronker’s vision for the district.

“Dr. Waronker also needed to work with someone that he could trust, that had his back, because he was in ‘enemy territory,’” she says. “From day one, there were people out to sabotage Dr. Waronker’s every move… Unfortunately, Mr. McDonald got caught in the crossfire.”

“His reputation is tarnished,” she continues. “And for what? Just because he wanted to help. This has become a pattern in the district. Whenever someone tries to do the right thing, he or she is fired.”  

 

Latest Hempstead School Official Arrest Adds To District’s Woes

Annette Greer

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.”

Cuomo Calls Trump Biggest Threat to NY

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Woodbury Oct. 22, 2018.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo rallied Democratic party faithful with criticism of President Donald Trump during a Nassau County Democratic Committee fundraiser at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury on Monday night.

Calling Trump a “madman,” the governor said the administration is aggressively trying to impose ultra-conservative policies on the states. He warned that with the appointment of Brett Kavanagh to the U.S. Supreme Court, Roe Vs. Wade, the precedent that legalized a woman’s right to choose, could be overturned.

“The threat now is Washington and the threat can’t be underestimated,” Cuomo the crowd of about 1,000. “They want their religious beliefs to be the law of the land.”

He urged the crowd to elect Democrats to flip both Congress and the New York State Senate from GOP control.

The governor touted legislative accomplishments such as establishing the $15 minimum wage, free college tuition for city students, SAFE Act gun control measures, and passage of the marriage equality act.

Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs likened Trump to the “man behind the curtain,” in The Wizard of Oz.

“He is nothing more than a con man, a carnival barker, full of hot air,” said Jacobs, criticizing Trump for his stances on gun control, climate change, and eliminating property tax cuts for many Long Islanders.

Cuomo, who won the Democratic Primary easily against and former Sex And the City star Cynthia Nixon, now faces Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and several third-party candidates, including Nixon, in the general election Nov. 6.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, the Democratic nominee for State Attorney General and the first black woman to hold citywide elected office, told the audience that “Diversity is our strength.”

Taylor Raynor, a Hofstra-educated business analyst from Hempstead and Democratic candidate for the 18th State Assembly District who defeated 30-year incumbent Dep. Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) in the primary, said the race is about helping people.

“It is not a blue issue, it is not a red issue,” she said. ”It’s an issue of protecting human rights.”

Taylor Raynor: Hempstead Schools’ Savior?

Taylor Raynor appears poised to unseat Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper on Election Day (Noticia photo)

Political newcomer Taylor Raynor’s stunning Democratic primary upset over 30-year incumbent Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) may have implications from Albany to Hempstead schools if Raynor unseats Hooper on Election Day.

Although Hooper — who has not conceded the primary — will still be on ballots on minor-party lines, Raynor likes her chances Nov. 6 against the incumbent and Republican rival James Lamarre in the heavily Democratic 18th Assembly District.

“Stranger things have happened,” Raynor says.

If she unseats Hooper, Raynor says she feels like she “has a huge task ahead,” including helping clean up Hempstead’s troubled school district, besieged by decades of problems including financial mismanagement, corruption, violence, and one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates.  

“I do feel that I can really bring about changes in Hempstead,” Raynor says. “Community activism and change…that’s what we need right now.”

Raynor is meeting with community leaders and organizers — including former Hempstead School Board members Melissa Figueroa and Gwendolyn Jackson — who are eager to see change. She believes a good starting point in the Hempstead district is bus transportation, so students will not have to cross busy streets and walk through dangerous areas that have been rife with gang violence.

“We are going to tackle the busing issue first,” says Sydney Daniel, Raynor’s sister, a registered nurse who grew up in Hempstead and attended its schools.

Daniel, who will be assisting Raynor with community projects, says the district utilizes the New York State public school bus protocol, but has never met the needs of students because the protocol says students must live farther than three miles from their school to get a bus, and most in the district fall outside the radius.

“Many parents leave for work earlier than the students leave for school and it’s risky enough knowing your child is waiting at a bus stop, but to know your child has to walk upwards of three miles to school regardless of the weather is quite sad,” Daniel says.

Figueroa agreed busing is a major concern.

“As winter is fast approaching, I think Taylor is being very wise to target public school bussing as a first order of business, as any student who currently walks to school would say unequivocally, busing is indeed one of the greatest areas in need.”

Asked if Hooper was helpful in providing funding for Hempstead schools, Figueroa was blunt.

“Not once did Hooper offer to assist us with funding for projects,” Figueroa says. “Rather, Hooper was actually responsible for fostering and sustaining much of the governmental wrongdoing in the Hempstead school district and in the village over her 30 years in office. That’s the unfortunate, straight political truth.”

Raynor notes that many of the issues related to Hempstead schools are questions of reallocating funding to make sure that the needs of students are being met as well as financial transparency.

“I want to make sure we have a firm understanding of where all the money in the district is going,” she says.

Raynor also encourages leaders from different communities to share information and work together by employing community action meetings, where leaders from diverse communities and districts from surrounding areas such as Baldwin, Freeport, Bellmore and even Jericho can come together and compare best practices.

“Currently, information sharing is not being done consistently,” Raynor says.

She also plans to make certain that resources are available districtwide, such as nutritious food and adequate teachers, including translators, if necessary for non-native English speakers.

As a former Hempstead school board member and audit committee chairperson, Gwendolyn Jackson says she is ready to be the “eyes and ears” for the community.

“Right now the board is unified and that is because all the troublemakers are either on the board or have their candidates on the board,” Jackson says.

But, she says, that doesn’t mean that they are doing the right thing.

“In fact, they are not! I will make sure that the BOE follows its own policies,” adds Jackson, pointing to utilizing the district’s website to disseminate information to the community and televising board meetings.  

Of course, there are other issues in District 18.

“The schools, the streets, the taxes,” Daniels says. “The taxes are a problem everywhere in the district.”

For Raynor’s part, she believes that knowledge and community are of the utmost importance.

“Applied knowledge…it’s the greatest power we have,” says Raynor. “We have a village, a community. There is too much to do to be divided.”

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.