Hempstead schools still reeling from disputed election

Hempstead School board president Lamont Johnson in the Hempstead School board president Lamont Johnson in the Hempstead High School auditorium where he was voted into the new position on July 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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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

Children in Hempstead returned to class Wednesday in a school district still reeling from a disputed school board election.

The school board, led by new president Lamont Johnson, has yet to schedule a special election -- as ordered last week by state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. -- to fill a board seat King had ordered vacated.

Some Hempstead residents believe the election to replace ousted member Betty Cross ought to be held as soon as possible.

Others are for moving it to Election Day in November to solicit the greatest local participation possible. That would spare the expense of a special election, allowing residents to choose from the top of the ballot for New York State governor down to one school board member seat.

Either way, Hempstead's board also will have to deal with another issue: King wants monitors in place to make sure the election goes more smoothly than in May, when allegations of absentee ballot tampering and other irregularities led candidate Maribel Touré -- who came in second to Cross -- and other district residents to file a petition with King.

Meanwhile, the Nassau County district attorney's office, in a statement Wednesday, for the first time indicated that its investigation into the district started before the May election and reaches well beyond allegations of voting irregularities.

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"We're in close and constant contact with the state Education Department, are well aware of their findings, and we are both sharing information with each other as the law allows," Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the district attorney -- and U.S. congressional candidate -- Kathleen Rice wrote in an email response to questions.

"Our investigation precedes and is wider than this election," he said.

In an interview later, Tarek said, "We were investigating allegations made in and about the district before the election." He declined to elaborate.

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Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said only that, "A commissioner's decision speaks for itself and we do not comment."

While King ordered that Cross be ousted as his department considered a complaint against her and district clerk Patricia Wright, the order handed down last week did not bar Cross, a former board president, from running to regain her seat.

Nor did it, as Cross opponents had hoped, award the seat to Touré.

As of Wednesday, Cross had not determined whether she would run again. She referred any further comment to her attorney, John E. Ryan of Floral Park, who said, "We are evaluating the situation," including Cross' ouster and whether "due process" was violated.

King's decision on Hempstead was quick -- most such decisions take many months -- and surgically rendered.

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The decision noted allegations that Cross improperly electioneered by walking residents into a polling place while asking them to vote for her, and that high school students were pulled from classrooms and told to vote for Cross.

It noted that, based on an analysis by an expert at Hofstra University, the difference in absentee ballot votes for Cross and Touré raised enough questions to require a special election and monitors.

The decision also referred to allegations that Hispanic voters were singled out for disparate treatment at the polls, with some rushed away before they could actually vote.

The Education Department concerned itself with issues within its purview -- which do not include determining whether there were violations of state criminal or election laws.

That job, for now at least, will be left to the district attorney.

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For the sake of the children in a district with a lot of work left to do to get back on its feet, the sooner Rice wraps up the investigation the better.

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