Home > Uncategorized > What Can Be Done When Local Boards Fail? Remove the Leadership and Give an Administrative Team Carte Blanche

What Can Be Done When Local Boards Fail? Remove the Leadership and Give an Administrative Team Carte Blanche

February 2, 2018

Today’s NYTimes includes an article by Kate Taylor that profiles the failures of the Hempstead School District on Long Island. The district serves close to 8,000 students. Ms. Taylor offers this description of the demographics:

Seventy percent are Hispanic, and many of those are recent immigrants. Nearly 40 percent of students are not proficient in English, and 70 percent come from families who are on some form of public assistance.

But Hempstead’s failures predate the influx of immigrants. It is longstanding:

For almost 30 years, the district has been failing its students, most of whom are Hispanic and black. During most of that time, a badly divided school board has been at war with itself. Test scores and graduation rates have been among the lowest in the state. School buildings have deteriorated so much that they have closed while children went to school in trailers. And board members have been convicted of theft and fraud.

And the problems go beyond governance. The violence in schools is a serious problem:

In interviews, parents and students in the Hempstead district expressed distress about the schools, in particular the violence at the district’s middle and high schools.According to the report prepared for the state by the retired superintendent, Jack Bierwirth, there were more than 50 fights at the high school between September and early December.

“It disrupts me from learning in class,” said Tamia Grant, 17, a senior at the high school. She said she hears the students fighting right outside her classrooms. “The doors are so thin, they’re like plexiglass, and they knock into the door,” she said. “My teacher has to stop what she’s doing to lock the door, because we’re scared that they’ll come into our classroom.”

And if mismanagement at the Board level and violence in schools isn’t enough of a problem, the failure to provide support to parents who speak English as a Second Language makes matters even worse:

Several Hispanic parents said that they felt that Hispanic students and families were particularly marginalized. They said that there were no Spanish interpreters at school meetings or at parent-teacher conferences.

“I always go to my kids’ meetings, but they say there’s no one there that speaks Spanish, so I don’t understand what they say to me,” said Emily Flores, 40, an immigrant from Mexico who has two children at Hempstead High School. Ms. Flores spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.

As one who believes in local governance by elected officials, but one who also believes every child deserves an opportunity to learn in a safe and orderly environment, and one who believe parent engagement is a key element in the success of any school, addressing a systemic failure like that of Hempstead presents a real problem. The headline of Ms. Taylor’s article, “In a District Known for Failure, Will the State Finally Step In” implies that the State could save the day. Alas, there is evidence to the contrary in New York:

The state has only ever once taken over a district completely, when in 2002 it took control of the Roosevelt School District, a nearby district with similar demographics to Hempstead. Like Hempstead, Roosevelt’s schools were low-performing and dangerous, and the leadership was chaotic. In addition, partly because the district lacked almost any commercial tax base, Roosevelt had very little money.

The state’s takeover lasted 11 years and is not generally regarded as a success: The state spent millions of dollars; some of the leaders it appointed were problematic; and the district’s results improved only marginally.

Ms. Taylor DOES imply a possible solution: merger with neighboring districts that are more affluent… and more integrated.

Hempstead and Roosevelt are among the poorest and most segregated districts in Nassau County. According to state records, Roosevelt did not have a single white student in the 2016-17 school year. Roughly 2 percent of Hempstead’s students were white. Nassau County’s population overall is 61 percent white, according to census records. In the district just north of Hempstead, Garden City, 88 percent of the students are white.

Dr. Singer, …Hofstra professor of education, said he felt the state’s decision to take over the Roosevelt district was a way for it to avoid dealing with the larger segregation issue.

Assuming the State DOES choose to take over, I would recommend that they remove the existing board and Superintendent– who has been a lightning rod through no fault of his own– and install an administrative team with a three year contract and broad powers. The team would consist of a CEO/Superintendent who would oversee academics, a CFO, a CIO, an HR specialist familiar with working with NYS’s civil service framework and capable of working with the union, and a curriculum consultant familiar with districts that are disproportionately ESOL. The team should be empowered to:

  • Replace and/or reassign all administrative staff in the district.
  • Develop a budget that sets per pupil costs at the same level as Garden City. In FY 15 Garden City spent $5,597 more per pupil than Hempstead. A three year boost of $134,000,000 ($5,597 X 8,000 X 3) would provide funding for the much needed services outlined below. While this funding boost will arguably sustain the avoidance of dealing with the larger segregation issue, it will force the state legislature to provide a tax-starved community with the same funding levels as its more affluent neighbor.
  • Immediately hire home visitors to meet with ESOL parents to acquaint them with how public education works in our country and the medical, mental health, and support services available to them and their children. This should be done by forging partnerships with existing community agencies and community groups, including churches.
  • Train board members to seek office and oversee the management of the schools. (This could be done in conjunction with the NYSBA).
  • Identify capital improvements that are necessary in the district and prepare warrant articles for the community to not on for funding these initiatives. Any capital improvements identified by the Administrative Team, supported by the Regents, and approved by the local voters should be given priority funding by the State Legislature.

To do anything less than this will fall short of the mark. But my hunch is that the state will avoid giving administrators the short term powers and funding authority they need to find and hire the best talent available— recognizing that some of that talent may be within the district. The state will also sidestep the funding issue by providing lump sums of money that may or may not address the facilities deficiencies and may or may not be targeted to obvious needs like parent outreach.

One thing I learned from assuming the leadership of a district that experienced financial difficulties: do not spend time trying to figure out what went wrong. Instead, it is better to design a financial system that is clearly understood internally and in the community and show the employees and the public that spending controls are in place and violations of this controls will not be tolerated going forward. The more time Hempstead’s leaders spend trying to ascertain what went wrong and who’s to blame, the less time they will have to establishing a new set of standards going forward.

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