Hempstead schools' administrative chaos betrays students

Betty Cross counts votes as they are read Betty Cross counts votes as they are read aloud during a special meeting at ABGS Middle School in Hempstead, May 21, 2014. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bales

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Almost lost in the fight over control of the Hempstead school board is the chaos in the district's administrative offices -- the last place, from the students' perspective, there ought to be instability.

Superintendent Susan Johnson survived one effort by a majority of the board in May to investigate her. At a raucous meeting Thursday, the board voted 3-2 to seek another investigation of Johnson, after raising questions about a new policy that requires four signatures before student grades can be changed and Johnson's decision to lay off more than 50 teachers.

Whatever issues the board's majority might have with Johnson, the vote is one more piece of troubling news for district children, who deserve what Hempstead hasn't had in years -- a stable, academics-focused administration.

As it is, Hempstead High School is losing its principal, and board president Betty Cross is fighting allegations of absentee ballot fraud and misuse. That's in addition to a grade-changing scandal, a district attorney investigation into last month's school board election and a complaint to the state Education Department alleging mishandling of absentee ballots and other serious improprieties.

The school district seems to be in free fall.

What happened during last week's chaotic school board meeting did not help. Cross abruptly gaveled the meeting to a close as scores of protesters -- many of them carrying signs -- demanded that she step down.

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And then the lights in the high school auditorium blinked and went out, leaving attendees to make their way to the exits using cellphones to light the way. One audience member told News 12 Long Island that she heard Cross order the lights turned off and the auditorium cleared. That came after a contentious, abbreviated meeting in which school security personnel also took microphones away from two speakers.

In an interview Friday, Cross said security personnel made the lights-out decision because the crowd was not leaving after she closed the meeting. "That was not me," she said. "I wasn't even there, I was already out."

As for the microphones, she said security took them away because speakers -- including Maribel Touré, who lost to Cross after absentee ballots were counted -- had not been recognized by Cross, who chaired the meeting. "There's a procedure and they were not respecting the procedure," she said.

But the board did meet long enough for a majority to approve the investigation into Johnson's professional conduct, which appeared to differ from the attempt in May only in that board members didn't also vote to require that Johnson stay home during the investigation.

"It's hard in that it puts a cloud over me at a time where there's work to be done to prepare for the next academic year," Johnson said Friday. "That work will get done."

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Johnson said she understood the union's unhappiness over the district's move to lay off more than 50 elementary and secondary school teachers and teaching assistants. But the district made layoffs every year, Johnson said, with the understanding that many of those staffers would be rehired.

Eleven reading teachers were among those let go. Johnson said they would be hired back as the district revamped its reading program over the summer. "We have to change what we were doing because it wasn't working," she said, noting that Hempstead came in last among Long Island districts in reading scores.

With so much in play, it is imperative that the district attorney's office and the state Education Department be thorough yet reasonably swift in their investigations.

Hempstead residents, and especially their children, deserve far better than this.

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