Wyandanch school district’s budget woes worsen, board tells residents

Budget woes in the Wyandanch school district are far more daunting than originally thought, with cash reserves down nearly $3.3 million from original levels, shocked residents were told at a board meeting Wednesday night.

The district’s external auditor, Marianne VanDuyne, told a capacity crowd that “rainy day” reserve funds upon which the system depends to meet emergencies had been exhausted during the 2017-18 school year. This, she said, could force Wyandanch to make deep cuts in personnel expenses in order to rebuild reserves.

“Now there are going to have to be tough decisions,” VanDuyne said.

Angry residents immediately launched a verbal barrage on school board trustees and administrators who mostly sat stoically silent. Several homeowners wondered aloud how high their taxes would rise.

“I want to know where my money is going,” said one audience member, Denise Edwards, who glared at board members as she explained that she had just bought a house locally in March. “If these people here can’t figure it out, then maybe we’ve got to bring in somebody else to figure it out.”

Wyandanch’s budget problems became widely recognized in January 2017, when the state comptroller’s office reported both the Hempstead and Wyandanch systems faced “significant stress” — the most serious level of financial trouble listed by the state. A more recent report issued by the agency last January raised Wyandanch’s financial status to “susceptible to fiscal stress,” while removing Hempstead from the statewide list altogether.

Immediately following release of the 2017 report, Wyandanch Superintendent Mary Jones said her district had been forced to go over budget to buy portable classrooms to help accommodate immigrants arriving from Central America. More recently, the district also rented a vacant school in Dix Hills to house an overflow of children enrolled in preschool programs and kindergarten.

According to the latest state records, Wyandanch enrolls about 2,500 students, 50 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino and 48 percent black or African-American. Eighty-seven percent of the district’s students are categorized as economically disadvantaged, compared with an average of 40 percent for Suffolk County.

Center Moriches superintendent to retire at end of year

Russell Stewart, the outspoken superintendent of Center Moriches schools, has announced he will retire from his $258,634-a-year job at the end of June, completing nine years in the post.

Joshua Foster, the school board president, said late Friday that trustees have hired a firm to help them search for Stewart’s replacement.

Stewart’s announcement was emailed Friday to employees of the 1,500-student system following a discussion with board members Thursday night.

The schools chief, in a phone message to Newsday, gave no reason for his decision to step down, and he did not return calls on Friday. Stewart, 54, has been an educator in New York since 1987, according to state records.

In the message, he said he took particular pride in the fact that, during his administration, Center Moriches doubled the percentage of students graduating with advanced Regents diplomas.

Such credentials show that students have completed advanced courses, such as geometry, beyond the minimum required to graduate.

In 2017, the latest year on record, 53.2 percent of the district’s graduates earned advanced diplomas, up from 27 percent in 2010. The Long Island regional average in 2017 was 56.4 percent, up from 30.9 percent in 2010.

“Personally, as a resident and a board member, I think he’ll be missed, ” said Darrell Iehle, who serves on the district’s five-member school board.

Iehle acknowledged that Stewart’s administration has been controversial at times, adding, “It comes with the territory.”

The board’s vice president, Robyn Rayburn, declined to comment, as did another trustee, George Maxwell.

In February, after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Stewart was one of the first superintendents on the Island to publicly air the possibility of hiring armed guards for his district’s schools.

Stewart’s most controversial move came in 2013, when he appointed a former health and physical education teacher from the Commack district as principal of Center Moriches Middle School. The appointee, Melissa Bates, had just completed a year as Stewart’s confidential assistant.

Stewart, who taught in the Commack system and was high school principal there before getting the superintendent’s job in Center Moriches, said his appointee had completed a one-year administrative internship. But a group of Center Moriches parents contended publicly that Stewart’s choice for the middle school job was inexperienced and petitioned unsuccessfully for her removal.

One of those parents, Sandra Unger, who has since moved to North Carolina, responded to Stewart’s announced retirement on Friday, saying of her former school district, “Hopefully, they can move on and have a more pleasant educational experience like the one I’m having down here.”

Middle school principal Melissa Reggio, the former confidential assistant who now uses her married name, praised the superintendent on Friday, describing him as “a phenomenal, hands-on leader for our school district who cared deeply for our schools and the community at large.”

Hempstead school district focuses on grades, curriculum

Raising the graduation rate and student test scores, improving the curriculum, stabilizing the system’s financial position and addressing overcrowding are among top priorities the Hempstead school district plans to tackle this school year .

The goals were outlined in an updated action plan the district submitted to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia as it moves into its second year with special adviser Jack Bierwirth, named by Elia to help turn around the largest K-12 system in Nassau County.

“We work every day to fulfill our motto of ‘Students first’ and we are confident that our priority list reflects that commitment,” school board President LaMont Johnson said in an emailed statement. “We know we have a lot of work to do, but having a game-winning plan is the first step to getting there.”

Bierwirth, a veteran Long Island educator, was appointed by Elia in fall 2017. In his role as “distinguished educator,” he serves as a nonvoting board member, assessing difficulties in the 8,000-plus student system and reporting back to the commissioner.

On Oct. 2, Elia extended Bierwirth’s appointment for a second one-year term and called on the Hempstead school board to “develop a revised action plan to address significant areas of concern and ensure they are priorities of the district.”

The plan, created over the last few weeks by the five-member board and Acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong, also outlines what the board would like Bierwirth to work on with them for the remaining 11 months of his appointment.

The state Education Department on Monday confirmed its receipt of the plan and said it is being reviewed.

Bierwirth, noting the board’s “excellent discussion” of the action plan, said, “I was very glad to see the board come together and spend a lot of time focusing on the priorities that need to be addressed over the next year. I really appreciated all of the time and attention given to instructional issues.”