NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — It’s almost time for kids to go back to school, and for one Long Island school district it is the moment of truth.
Hempstead High School — having one of the lowest graduation rates in the country — is entering receivership, meaning it has one year to turn around its failures or else an outside entity will take charge, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported.
“When I say chaotic, it was chaotic,” said Reginald Stroughn, a former principal of the school.
Now retired, Stroughn is an insider, speaking out.
“The credits and courses and attendance were all helter skelter,” Stroughn said.
Dysfunctional administrators, according to Stroughn, fail in the basics like keeping track of transcripts and enrollment.
“I’d be willing to bet if you asked them right now what is the attendance in Hempstead right now, they couldn’t tell you,” said Stroughn.
Stroughn said the chaos is reflected in the abysmal 37 percent graduation rate — less than half the national average of 81 percent.
“Nobody was watching the store,” Stroughn said.
“We should have better people working here,” said one student.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” another student said.
The district’s poor performance is not for lack of funding, Gusoff reported. Its per pupil spending of $25,551 is well above the state average of $19,818.
“We never know exactly where that money is going,” said one teacher who did not want their identity revealed. “Why are there no textbooks, no work books, no curriculum guides?”
Many teachers who spoke with CBS2 were fearful to reveal their identity.
“It’s like a ship without a captain,” said the teacher.
Even in the lower schools, disorganization, lack of discipline and lack of protocols are evident, Gusoff reported.
“Furniture being thrown and things being broken in the classrooms. Teachers being punched and spit on,” said the teacher.
And they believe at the heart of the district’s problems: “A lot of teachers are not really qualified for their jobs. They happen to know someone at the board of education or they know the superintendent,” the teacher told Gusoff.
Board of Regents member Roger Tilles said a culture of nepotism and patronage is an open secret.
“When you have a high unemployment rate, the key to being elected to the board in those areas, is getting getting friends, relatives jobs,” said Tilles. “As a result, you have people appointed to jobs who are not qualified to do those jobs. Unfortunately that had a real detrimental effect for kids.”
A recent state comptroller audit found unqualified staffers, including:
- An aide paid $60,000 for a 10-month job who lacked a required college degree.
- A coach who lacked a coaching license.
- And a school board assistant paid $95,000 a year with no known duties.
Stroughn said administrators were often hired out of nowhere.
“They would tell us these are the three candidates, and then somebody else would be appointed for the job who wasn’t in the pool,” he said.
“There are teachers in the classroom who make grammatical mistakes on the blackboard all the time,” said the teacher.
The audit also found the board appointed administrators with no documented plan, reason or clear benefit to the district, Gusoff reported. And closed the public out of more than half of its school board meetings.
The school board president, at the helm for only a year, said he’s aware of rumors but has no first hand knowledge of pervasive cronyism. He declined an on-camera interview but told Gusoff current board members have a “moral compass and are doing their best to ensure this is no longer happening on their watch.”
These challenges are complicated by a huge influx of immigrant children in recent years.
Critics are hoping two newly appointed school board members will bring change.
“There is something that is endemically wrong in the Hempstead culture, and the culture needs to be change, a paradigm shift needs to take place,” said Civil Rights Attorney Fred Brewington.
One parent had another name for the status quo: “Corruption. I believe that’s the heart. It’s been going on for 30 years,” said Dennis Jones.
“We need to help our children. They are not going to succeed and that’s the reason we have a low graduation rate at Hempstead High School. They give up,” said the teacher.
The key to change, according to Tilles, is the acceptance of help when it’s offered. Which has not yet been the case in Hempstead, he said.
A community action group has asked the Nassau district attorney to investigate allegations of corruption in the school district.
The DA told CBS2 the investigation is ongoing.