Written by Thomas Duffy Friday, 09 October 2009 00:00
On July 7, Dr. Herman A. Sirois publicly announced he would be resigning from his position as superintendent of the Levittown Public School District.
Dr. Sirois presented his letter of resignation at a meeting of the Levittown Board of Education. Five of the board’s seven members voted to accept the letter while two abstained from voting. Dr. Sirois’ resignation will be effective June 30, 2011.
Dr. Sirois has currently served as an administrator in the Levittown district for a total of 28 years, 23 of which were spent as its superintendent of schools – one of the longest terms of any superintendent on Long Island. His tenure has been marked by both impressive achievements and nagging controversies, making him a polarizing figure in the Levittown community.
Dr. Sirois was first hired by the district as an assistant superintendent in the 1970s. At that time, Levittown was considered one of the most academically undistinguished districts in Nassau County, and it was suffering the effects of a long and heated teachers’ strike. Dr. Sirois maintains that his nearly three decades as an administrator has restored stability to the district and enabled it to become “one of the highest achieving school districts in Nassau County, in the state of New York, and throughout the country.” He points to statistics that illustrate a vast improvement in student performance during his tenure.
“Within the past 20 years, students in the Levittown schools have doubled and even tripled their performance on measures of educational quality such as enrollments in Regents level college courses and AP level courses, Regents diploma rates, and rates of college attendance,” he says. “Currently, the Levittown students consistently achieve at or above Nassau County averages on New York State’s measures of achievement. Levittown’s standing at or above the Nassau County average is particularly impressive since Nassau County maintains among the highest student achievement throughout the United States and the western world.”
Under Dr. Sirois’ guidance, the district adopted its motto of “Success for Every Student,” which it has had for roughly two decades.
Recently, however, Dr. Sirois’ work as superintendent has come under widespread scrutiny and criticism after he announced two years ago that the district had accrued a roughly $7 million operating budget deficit. Dr. Sirois, as well as his contemporary board members, publicly apologized to Levittown residents for this calamity and attributed it to the failure of the district’s previous business administrator to calculate expenses for roughly 25 staff members over the previous two years. That administrator, Jeffrey Carlson, had already left the district prior to the discovery of the deficit and has since said that he cannot comment on any alleged transgressions on his part as he no longer has access to the district’s business records. The findings of a subsequent state audit have placed the 2007 deficit at $6 million but also uncovered a number of other improper and even illegal budgeting practices by the district.
Following the public disclosure of the deficit, Dr. Sirois assured Levittown residents that the matter could be resolved simply by shifting money from currently unused and overfunded reserves to the district’s operating budget and that neither Levittown’s students nor its taxpayers would have to suffer a price for it. Early this year, however, Dr. Sirois and the board announced that cutbacks would be necessary throughout the district in order to achieve a balanced budget, and they proceeded to make reductions in district staff, programs and services. Although the board worked hard to minimize the severity of any implemented cuts, their actions nonetheless drew outrage from many Levittown residents. Hostile crowds often gathered at board meetings, chastising the board’s members and even calling on Dr. Sirois to resign. In addition, the district’s tax levy for the 2009/10 school year will likely increase 3.25 percent from the year before. Dr. Sirois has maintained that the necessity of these actions is completely unrelated to the 2007 deficit and in fact is the result of the state’s failure to increase funding to the district over the past two years. However, many critics, such as current Board Vice President Michael Pappas, have argued that the reserve funds could have been used to resolve any monetary problems arising from a lack of funding had they not already been used to cover the deficit.
Further stirring controversy was the revelation that Dr. Sirois’ office had undergone extensive renovations, which one estimate priced at $140,000, around the same time as the discovery of the deficit. The office had been refurbished to include a shower and washer/dryer, as well as such embellishments as wall-to-wall carpeting and mahogany window trims. The renovations had been unanimously approved by the board the year before.
“The timing was not good, but it was a long-range project,” says John Garvey, who served as vice president of the board at that time.
Another former member of that board, Diane Shapiro, describes Dr. Sirois’ previous office as having been “disgusting,” with holes in the carpet, and insists the renovations were long overdue. She also claims that Dr. Sirois had himself never pressed for any renovations to be done, instead preferring money to be spent on other district offices and buildings in need of repair.
Dr. Sirois defends the lavishness of the renovations, explaining that the shower and washer/dryer enable him to spend the night in his office following late board meetings and then prepare himself for early staff meetings the morning after. In addition, he says, others will benefit from the renovations as well, including his successor as superintendent.
“It’s not my office, it’s the district’s office,” he explains. “My office will be here long after I’m gone.”
Many Levittown residents, however, do not share the same attitude for Dr. Sirois’ new office.
“I think he deserves a decent office, and it wasn’t totally over the top,” says Marie Pustorino, who was a member of the PTA at the time the renovations were completed, “but I really don’t think he needs a shower, bathroom, and washer/dryer.”
In 2008, James P. Ward, who had been a member of the board when Dr. Sirois first came to the district in the 1970s, was re-elected to the board on a campaign pledge to prevent Dr. Sirois from being reinstated as superintendent when his current contract expires at the end of the 2010/11 school year. Throughout the years, Ward has been one of the most outspoken critics of Dr. Sirois and his fiscal practices.
“The disgraceful financial problems confronting the Levittown School District can be attributed directly to his doorstep and those of an inept school board,” Ward had declared during his bid for re-election.
However, despite his long-professed opposition to Dr. Sirois, Ward refused to vote in favor of accepting his letter of resignation when it was presented to the board at the July 7 meeting, preferring instead to abstain from voting. The reason, he explains, was not that he is necessarily opposed to the idea of Dr. Sirois resigning, but rather that he does not agree with the content of the letter he presented.
“The language of the resolution, drafted by Dr. Sirois, was highly self-laudatory and failed to reflect the numerous instances of failed initiatives and missteps which have cost Levittown residents millions of dollars in excessive taxes, during his tenure as superintendent of schools,” he says. “Dr. Sirois, in my opinion, has consistently failed to personally accept responsibility for all the failures of his administration.”
The minutes of that meeting note that the board officially recognizes that during Dr. Sirois’ tenure as superintendent, “the school district has undergone a transformation in student achievement from among the lowest in Nassau County to consistently at or above county averages on New York State programs and student assessments, Regents exams, Regents diploma rates, college attendance rates, Advanced Placement participation rates, and other measures of educational quality.” Ward had requested that this statement be removed from the motion, but his request was denied.
Despite the criticisms from Ward and others, there are those who choose to look more favorably on the legacy Dr. Sirois leaves behind.
“I prefer to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty,” says Levittown resident Kristin Gornell. “In my opinion, I think that Herman Sirois has had a very positive effect on not only the Levittown School District but in the community as a whole. I have been witness to many positive changes and growth that the district has undergone during the time Herman Sirois has been an administrator here. His dedication to the district and his fierce advocacy of the community has not only changed perceptions of Levittown, it has also helped to effect real change in the social stratum.” In response to Ward’s comments, she asks, “Why is Mr. Ward so focused on Dr. Sirois owning up to any mistakes that were made during his tenure? Who among us is perfect? If we were all to be judged solely by our shortcomings, the vast majority of us would be considered failures. …I think we owe Herman Sirois a debt of gratitude for dedicating the bulk of his career to our community and should not be tarnishing the end of that career by trying to stir up public discord.”
According to Ward, “contractual and confidentiality issues” preclude anyone on the board from discussing in detail the reason for Dr. Sirois’ sudden decision to resign. However, current Board President Dan Bornstein says that the knowledge that Dr. Sirois will resign has the benefit of enabling the board to proceed with looking for a replacement for him.
“Dr. Sirois felt it wouldn’t be appropriate for the board to begin a search while he was still in office and had not submitted a resignation,” he says.
Expressing his own personal views, Bornstein acknowledges that he has had his share of disagreements with Dr. Sirois and that he wishes the fiscal controls currently in place in the district had been implemented much sooner. However, he points out, “I have witnessed the improvements over the past 11 years in academic performance, Regents performance, curriculum improvement, and course offerings.” Furthermore, he states, “Dr. Sirois has been in the Levittown district over 20 years. You cannot replace that kind of experience easily.”
With regard to what qualities he personally would like to see in Dr. Sirois’ eventual successor, Bornstein says, “The next superintendent should have a clear vision on our academic future and a plan to get the district there. That person needs to be an established leader and must be able to demonstrate expertise in fiscal control.”