May 30, 2004, Sunday


Hempstead Schools Stuck in Failure Rut

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 1180 words

HEMPSTEAD -- CLINTON ROAD winds through lush Garden City, where the median household income is $104,176, before it crosses into Hempstead and becomes Clinton Street. The change mocks the slight name shift. The trees thin out, large lawns give way to laundries and bodegas, and the median income drops to $45,234.

The distinction is even starker in the schools. In Garden City, 99 percent of the students graduate from high school. In the Hempstead school district, which includes most of the Village of Hempstead, that figure is 38 percent.

More than 70 percent of the 6,800 Hempstead students qualify for the federal free lunch program. Nearly 90 percent of households of the pre-K class receive public assistance.

This school year alone, the Prospect Elementary School was closed after administrators discovered mold in the cafeteria and a crumbling chimney in a classroom. Officials decided to close Marguerite Golden Rhodes Elementary after state education officials inspected it and saw a gap between where the paint on the walls ended and the ceiling began, an indication that something was moving.

Students at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School were served spoiled food, and an improperly vented hot water heater sickened several teachers and students. And at Hempstead High School, a blackboard fell off a wall in late March, exposing asbestos left over from a botched cleanup in 1990. The building was shut for a week.

Academic performance also suffers. The percentage of Hempstead students meeting state fourth-grade English standards is 76, while the county average is 84. In fourth-grade math, 85 percent in Hempstead met standards; the county average is 94 percent. Academic decline becomes more pronounced by eighth grade, where only 29 percent of Hempstead students met state standards in English and 43 percent in math. The county averages were 64 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

''The classrooms are overcrowded,'' said Olive Warner, who has three children in the district. ''They're lacking books. They need more qualified teachers. And last, but as important, they need better food. My kids refuse to eat any of the school food. My daughter says there's black stuff on it.''

It is not likely to get any better this year. The district's proposed $120,974,579 budget failed on May 18 by a vote of 668 to 331, with less than 4 percent of registered voters bothering to go to the polls. The budget carried a spending increase of 7 percent over the current year and called for a tax rate increase of 19 percent.

It was not the only budget to fail. Forty-six of 124 budgets across Long Island were defeated, according to the state Education Department. But Hempstead needed the money more than most. It is now short two elementary schools, and despite an already poor ratio of teachers to students, 30 people were laid off this year to cut costs. School officials put up a $177 million bond referendum in December to make repairs, but it failed by 30 votes.

''In Hempstead, budgets usually pass,'' said the district's spokesman, Don Miller. ''This year, it went down 2 to 1. People are just saying they've had enough of rising taxes and higher prices for things like eggs and milk. There's nowhere else where they can have direct control except in the schools.''

Hempstead's school board is reviewing its options, Mr. Miller said. It will either put a modified budget before voters or adopt an austerity budget, which would include only those items mandated by statute or essential to operating and maintaining the schools. Only emergency repairs for health and safety reasons would be allowed.

Mr. Miller said school officials cannot be blamed for deteriorating facilities, particularly if residents vote down bond issues meant to pay for repairs. And he noted that test scores are up in all five elementary schools and that more children are taking the Regents exams in high school than ever before. ''It's not all bad news,'' Mr. Miller said.

Kevan Abrahams, a county legislator who represents part of the Hempstead school district, said the schools there are in a Catch-22 situation. With a current budget of $15,091 per pupil -- the county average is $15,162 -- residents feel that they are paying a lot for what they are getting, he said, but if they do not pay more, the district is not going to get any better.

''People think, 'Why should I pay more money in school taxes than everyone else in the county when our schools are some of the worst-performing schools in the county?''' Mr. Abrahams said.

Residents believe the district is top-heavy with administrators, they hear of money being earmarked for new laboratories that are never built and they hear accusations of misappropriations of money, Mr. Abrahams said. Last August, April Jones-White, who had served on the board for five years, was removed after the board reviewed charges that she had used school money for personal expenses. And this year, the board's newest member, Thomas Parsley Jr., was accused of using his school board credit card for personal use while on a board trip to New Orleans.

''He just got there last year, and already this happened,'' Mr. Abrahams said. ''It's almost like this is the culture.''

Mr. Parsley said that he repaid the $800 he spent on personal items and that the current board cannot be held entirely accountable for problems that have been brewing for decades.

''We've had 20 years of mismanagement, and I'm new, and I feel like it's all falling apart on my watch,'' Mr. Parsley said.

Sheriva Scott of Hempstead, a former president of the Hempstead School Civil Service Association, which covers nurses and security, clerical and food service staff, says her union tried to defeat the budget because it does not believe the administration is acting in good faith. The union was initially told the budget would have no spending increase and that the unions would have to make concessions. Her union accepted a reduction of eight positions and the administration said it would seek a 3 percent budget increase. Yet the district wound up cutting only two administrative positions and put forward a budget with a 7 percent spending increase, she said.

''We had a fit because there are already too many administrators,'' Ms. Scott said. ''We told them there would be action.''

Elaine Nolan, a local real estate agent, said she voted against school budgets for the last two years because of the district's poor academic record. ''If the schools were good, you wouldn't mind paying it,'' she said. ''But when you see children being hurt by graduating with no education, it's not something you can stomach. The money doesn't go to the education of the children. It just vanishes.''

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company