Alan Krawitz

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Chef Thomas Rougey: A Perfect Landing

Chef Thomas Rougey outside The Landing in Ocean Beach, the closest restaurant to the ferry terminal.

Chef Thomas Rougey’s path to becoming the executive chef at The Landing in Ocean Beach is anything but typical. 

For starters, unlike many chefs who begin their career at culinary school, Rougey, now 32, learned working at his father’s restaurant, Emerson’s in Babylon, when he was just 18. 

“I learned to cook on the job, while cooking for my dad in his restaurant,” he recalls. “That was my training…I didn’t go to any fancy culinary school.” 

However, Rougey likely had a leg up on other chefs anyway, coming from a country known for its fine cuisine. 

Born and raised in France, Rougey, who came to the U.S. in 1998, says he is a third-generation chef who progressed from a pantry line cook to a sous chef. He finally landed the role of executive chef at several venues including East Hampton Point Restaurant and Hotel, Verace in Islip, and True American Kitchen in Mineola. 

Rougey, who originally planned to be a computer programmer, says that he doesn’t regret not going to culinary school. 

“My on-the-job training was definitely better than going to a culinary school, I mean, I moved up the ranks in the kitchen quickly,” he recalls. He mainly used skills he learned early on. “Cooking, for me, was a natural thing. It was in my blood, even though I didn’t realize it until I was doing it daily.”

Calling cooking “too hard a job to not love,” he says that, fortunately, once you can navigate one kitchen, you can figure out the rest. 

“The various systems of cooking in the kitchen change little from restaurant to restaurant…only the atmosphere and size of staff…large kitchens just have more hands to control,” he says. 

As executive chef of The Landing for the past year and a half, Rougey has helped to rework the venue’s menu a bit, keeping the spot’s seafood staples such as calamari and sushi but adding a French flair. 

Rougey says he’s generated good buzz with specialties such as surf and turf, a homemade turkey burger, and from-scratch pastas that he learned to make growing up in Nice, France, which is only about 30 minutes from Italy.  

Patrons of The Landing also seem pleased with Rougey’s light-style French cuisine. 

Belinda Rubino wrote on Facebook that the “surf and turf, the sushi, beet salad, and a white Cheddar, applewood smoked bacon burger were all prepared to everyone’s delight. Executive Chef Thomas Rougey satisfied my restrictive [gluten-free] vegan dietary needs with great flare, by serving a perfectly cooked crispy skinned salmon entree, delicate asparagus and miniature zucchini sauteed in olive oil.”

Rougey, who enjoys the laid-back atmosphere of Ocean Beach also says that working in the U.S. compares favorably with his native France. 

“Work-wise, I like the U.S. better for opportunities than France,” he explains. “I like the way the U.S. handles business. People seem to be hungrier to work here.” 

The Landing at Ocean Beach is located at 620 Bay Walk in Ocean Beach. It can be reached at 631-583-5800 or thelandingob.com

Chef Jeff Manzullo of Tiki Joe’s Captain’s Table: Top Seafood Chef

Jeff Manzullo is head chef at the newly opened Tiki Joe’s Captain’s Table at Captree Boat Basin. (Photo by Jennifer A. Uihlein)

Jeff Manzullo, currently head chef at the newly opened Tiki Joe’s Captain’s Table at Captree Boat Basin is no stranger to cooking up some of the tastiest seafood on Long Island.

Saying that cooking is “in his blood,” Manzullo, 57, has been navigating hot stoves and busy kitchens for the better of three decades since graduating from top culinary school Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island in 1982, four years after celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse graduated. Recalling his early days as a chef, Manzullo jokes that he had originally planned to be a marine biologist but then learned there was little money in the profession, so he decided to change things up.

“I went from studying fish to cooking them,” he says.

Manzullo once appeared as a contestant on the cooking show Top Chef many years back. He recalls that his grandfather was also once a sous chef at the New York City landmark Waldorf Astoria Hotel back in the 1930s. 

Over the years, Manzullo says, he has cooked at a number of restaurants across the country, including a few in the Florida Panhandle, before coming to Long Island where he owned and ran his own restaurant, Mulligan’s in Hampton Bays, from 197 to 2003. That, he says, was before rising rents in the now super trendy Hamptons forced him to close.

Ironically, Mulligan’s was primarily a popular burger spot. He recalls routinely going through up to 900 pounds of chopped meat per week.

Manzullo also spent considerable time crafting cuisine at other notable Long Island restaurants including Morgan’s Beach House Restaurant in Patchogue, Mickey Felice’s Steakhouse, also in Patchogue, Long Island National Golf Club in Riverhead, and Larry’s Crab House in East Moriches. 

Asked about his start in cooking, Manzullo nonchalantly says he kind of “stumbled” into cooking despite the fact that he was always very good at preparing food.

“I didn’t picture myself sitting behind a desk…I have a hard time sitting still as it is,” he explains, describing his frenetic, always-on-the-go style of cooking. 

“This is a good business for me because there’s always something exciting going on,” Manzullo says. He notes that he’s had his share of crossed paths with notables and dignitaries alike, including cooking at one time for LI radio personality WBAB-FM’s Bob Buchmann and his Jukebox Café as well as cooking for former President Gerald Ford.

Manzullo’s current focus is helping Tiki Joe’s Beach Club visitors to discover the joys of quality yet moderately priced seafood at the just-opened Captain’s Table restaurant upstairs at Tiki Joe’s Captree Boat Basin. The restaurant is on the former site of Captree Cove.

The mostly seafood menu at the Captain’s Table was a joint effort between Manzullo and his boss Joe Vitrano, president and CEO of J&B Restaurant Partners, which owns Tiki Joe’s Captain’s Table in Bay Shore as well as a number of other Tiki Joe’s concessions across LI, including Smith Point, Cedar Beach, and Cupsogue parks, in addition to a number of Friendly’s locations.

The reasonably priced menu, which features only a couple of items topping $20, includes standards such as calamari, baked clams ( which Vitrano says are “likely the best baked clams you’ll ever have”), mussels, clams on the half shell, marinated flat-iron steak, mahi-mahi, and lobster ravioli.   

Manzullo’s specialties include puttanesca mussels, and a popular Tiki Joe’s favorite, a lobster salad roll, will soon make its seasonal debut.

And as a student of marine biology, Manzullo ensures the fish is always as fresh as those coming in off the boats at the pier just outside the restaurant. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tiki Joe’s Captain’s Table is open daily for lunch and dinner from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.. It is located at 3500 East Ocean Parkway, Babylon. It can be reached at 631-333-1781 or tikijoesbeachclub.com

 

 

For Piccolo Cantina Bay’s Chef Jose Morales, The American Dream is His Spice

Chef Jose Morales

For Chef Jose Morales, the head chef at Piccolo Cantina Bay in Bayville, the American Dream is alive and well.

Now 63, Morales, who was born in El Salvador and grew up in Mexico, says he crossed the border illegally in 1979, settling in Texas for three years before moving to New York in 1981.

“I love this country; it opened its doors to me many years ago and allowed me to live my American Dream,” says Morales, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen before perfecting the art of cooking both authentic Mexican and Italian cuisines.

Morales recalls that originally his plan was to become an architect and design buildings, but after tasting his first Italian meal in the states more than 35 years ago, he decided to design meals instead.

“I fell in love with cooking,” he says. “To me, being a cook is like being an artist…you have to do it with your heart.”

Morales explains that before perfecting his craft at the Culinary Institute of America in Manhattan, like many other chefs, he started at the bottom, washing dishes and working his way up, cooking at various Mexican and Italian restaurants throughout New York, including Chateau Madrid in Manhattan.

He also worked at various venues in Nassau County before opening his first restaurant in 1991 in Jericho. That led to several others on Long Island including Café Jalisco in Glen Cove and Marcello’s Café in Bellmore.

In 2007, Morales opened La Cantina Bay with his family in Locust Valley to strong local reviews of the venue’s Mexican and Italian specialties. Piccolo Cantina Bay in Bayville is the most current version of the restaurant, which moved only a few blocks away.

Some of Morales’ authentic Mexican and Italian specialties include Spanish paella, pork chops, fajitas, chicken francese, and mussels Luciano.

Customers seem to think highly of Chef Morales and his cooking.

The food is to die for,” Nick Carbuto wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “Couldn’t decide from a well-stocked menu. My wife and I chose from the specials for the day, stuffed pork chop and grilled swordfish! Out of this world! One would think that two genres of food can’t both be done well.”

Morales notes that the patrons in this part of town have good taste.

“We’re in a very good neighborhood and we have appreciative customers,” says Morales, who has nearly his entire family involved in the restaurant including his wife Elvia, his daughters, and his son. “Starting a family business is a good idea…it’s one thing that I would recommend to anyone thinking of starting a business: Do it with family.”

Morales, who volunteers his time helping local seniors in his area with errands, stresses that he is thankful for the opportunities he’s been given in life.

“I came here with dreams and ambitions and America opened its doors for me,” he says. “I am a proud immigrant and I’m thankful for the opportunity this country has given to me.”

Piccolo Cantina Bay is located at 18 a Bayville Ave. in Bayville. It can be reached at 516-802-3001.

 

Chef Michael Meehan: Making Culinary Music

Photo by Ron Ulip

Award-winning Long Island chef and musician Michael Meehan must be a big believer in the theory of inertia that states that objects in motion tends to stay in motion.

Meehan, 60, is the chef/partner at farm-to-table restaurant River Road American Bistro in Oyster Bay, a chef/partner at barbecue restaurant Radio Radio in downtown Huntington and also chef at neighboring Vauxhall, also in Huntington, which Meehan describes as a Brooklyn-style, punk rock burger bar.

“Three years ago,” Meehan says, “I connected with the partners of Vauxhall and we developed the two restaurant concepts now next to each other in Huntington.”

And, as if that wasn’t enough, he somehow finds time “at least once each month” to play local gigs with his band the Lucky Ones, described as alt-country and roots rock. Critics have compared Meehan’s music to that of Warren Zevon — not exactly shabby company.

They’ve played at venues such as the Founder’s Room at the Paramount and Rockwood Music Hall in NYC as well as festivals including Huntington Fall Fest and an upcoming appearance at The Sayville Summer Fest this August.  

But first and foremost is Meehan’s stellar 30-plus year career in the restaurant business, highlighted by not only his current three venues but also his past involvement running unique and upscale spots including Mill River Inn (on the current site of River Road), Tupelo Honey in Sea Cliff, Veritage in Rockville Centre, and Clearwater in Massapequa.

Meehan’s glowing reviews include being called “one of the region’s super chefs” by The New York Times’ Joanne Starkey and a “stellar chef” by Newsday’s Peter Gianotti. He was also named a Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation.

He has worked with a handful of other restaurants including Coyote Grill in Island Park, Lori in Southampton, and H20 Seafood Grill in Smithtown.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Meehan grew up on Long Island before honing his culinary craft in California and Alaska.

He humbly recalls having learned to cook “in the field,” after traveling in his 20s, working in Lake Tahoe’s Northstar Resort, while making his way through the ranks first as a dishwasher and then finally to a cook.

Meehan recalls cooking and training in Manhattan before opening Mill River Inn in Oyster Bay and then later Tupelo Honey in Sea Cliff, earning three stars from The Times.

He adds that he was very influenced by his travels in the south, particularly North Carolina and Nashville, which makes sense when he describes the fare at Radio Radio to be more influenced by Nashville (fried green tomatoes, chicken biscuits, shrimp and grits) and Memphis (dry-rubbed smoked BBQ).”

Meehan explains that Vauxhall’s owners (including himself) are all musicians who have played in bands and toured, with the name Vauxhall owing to a Morrissey album.

Signature dishes there include a new Cubano Burger with smoked pulled pork, ham, creole mustard and pickles, and a Lobster Pretzel Roll.

Radio Radio, named after an Elvis Costello song, is what Meehan calls a Southern-New American bistro with smoked meats as well as vegan offerings.

Typical dishes include Nashville-style hot chicken with creamy slaw and bread and butter pickles and Bistro Salad with dried peaches, candied pecans, goat cheese, and sherry mustard dressing.

At River Road, one might encounter seasonal Long Island seafood such as char-grilled Pine Island oysters with tomato absinthe butter or local sea bass with wheat berries, roast vegetables and carrot-yuzu broth as well as local beverages and products from Brooklyn to Montauk. 

Meehan, who seems to have little downtime, says he currently splits time between his two restaurants in Huntington and River Road in Oyster Bay.  

He adds, “But we are working on spring menu changes for Vauxhall and Radio Radio, so I will be there a lot more starting in April.”

River Road American Bistro, Oyster Bay, 160 Mill River Rd., Oyster Bay, 516-802-5661, riverroadoysterbay.com

Vauxhall, 26 Clinton Ave., Huntington, 631-425-0222, vauxhallhuntington.com

Radio Radio, 24 Clinton Ave., Huntington, 631-923-2622, radioradiohuntington.com

New Mobile Recovery Unit Removes Treatment Barriers

Supporters checked out the new Mobile Recovery Unit at its unveiling. (Photo by Ed Shin)

Nassau County has a new weapon in the war on opioids

In the ongoing fight against opioid addiction on Long Island, many addiction experts say that barriers to effective treatment, such as lack of transportation, money, or health insurance, can be as daunting as the drugs themselves. But Nassau residents now have a new alternative for treatment thanks to Hicksville-based CN Guidance & Counseling Services, which recently introduced a new mobile recovery unit that will offer treatment services for heroin and opiate addiction to individuals throughout the county. 

“Many people are not able to travel to receive the help that they need for addiction,” Arlene González-Sánchez, commissioner of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, said at a recent press conference introducing the new mobile recovery unit. 

The unit, funded by a state grant, aims to bring treatment directly to addicts, and will utilize a registered nurse, a case worker, and two clinicians equipped with telepsychiatry equipment to connect patients with doctors at CN Guidance & Counseling Services’ headquarters.  

Officials at CN (Central Nassau) Guidance said the mobile team will provide real-time interaction and an appropriate level of pre-engagement, engagement, and treatment in a private environment.

“Aggressively training community members to administer Narcan and mounting a large-scale prevention/treatment campaign have helped curb the number of overdoses we have seen in 2018,” said Jeffrey Friedman, CEO of CN Guidance & Counseling Services.

He added that “every day our phones are ringing off the hook from individuals and families seeking treatment.”

Friedman said that in the last two years alone, more than 1,000 Long Islanders have died from the opioid crisis, and demand for the organization’s services has increased to 7,000 residents from 2,000 only five years ago.

According to the Suffolk County November 9, 2018 meeting minutes of the Suffolk County Legislature’s Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, top communities for overdoses have remained constant and include Coram, Shirley, West Babylon, Centereach, and Medford.

In Nassau County, CN Guidance named Massapequa, Levittown, East Meadow and Oceanside as opiate hot spots.  

CN Counseling client Thomas Ingenito, 23, of East Meadow, said he used various drugs including crack, heroin and Zanax before finally getting clean following a short jail term in the Nassau County Correctional Center.

“Too often, addicts are disregarded,” he said, at the debut of the mobile recovery unit. “This will help lots of people get treatment,” he added, explaining that many people lack transportation or don’t have insurance to cover proper treatment.

The mobile unit will provide treatment regardless of an individual’s ability to pay.

“A mobile recovery unit would be a powerful tool to help increase access and reduce barriers to care,” says Dr. David Neubert, an emergency department physician at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola who has led free Narcan training and also oversees opioid overdose prevention programs for the Town of Hempstead. “While our emergency department is always available to provide emergent care for those affected by opioid-related illnesses, mobile units will provide an important link to longer-term access to care and improved addiction recovery services.”

Dr. Sal Raichbach, a psychologist with Ambrosia Treatment Centers in West Palm Beach, Florida says that mobile recovery units are a great community resource.

“Often, people come to treatment because they are given an ultimatum by their loved ones or their jobs, or they are forced in through the court system,” he says. “But many people don’t have family and friends to encourage them to seek recovery, and as a result, never make it into treatment. A mobile unit bypasses a lot of the red tape and allows people direct access to support, counseling and transportation to treatment.”

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.”