Keeping an eye on education in Hempstead, amid acrimony

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. (Credit: Jeremy Bales)

Betty Cross, president of the Hempstead school board, left a luncheon board meeting last week to check out a report of trouble in the middle school. She didn't have far to go. The meeting and the middle school were in the same complex on Peninsula Boulevard in Hempstead.

Let us push aside, for now, the contention by attorney Frederick Brewington -- who is representing candidates who dispute that Cross won re-election last month because of alleged improprieties with absentee ballots -- that last Thursday's meeting was illegal because of insufficient public notice.

Brewington's argument -- along with every vote three members of the board took last week -- likely will add grist to a complaint Brewington is expected to file with the state Department of Education. And, perhaps, those issues even will become relevant to an ongoing Nassau district attorney's office investigation into Hempstead, which a spokesman Friday called "very much active and ongoing."


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Cross, in her first extended interview since the election, said she's not been contacted by either office.

She said as far as she is concerned she was re-elected to the board -- a post she's held for some 25 years -- fair and square. "Nobody's bothered to ask me about anything," she said. "They just want to cut my throat."

Cross acknowledged her campaign staff went out and helped residents fill out absentee ballots on Election Day. "I don't think the district attorney is coming after me," she said. "I could be wrong, but for what?"

As for taking the oath of office on election night, Cross said she and the top vote-getter, Ricky Cooke, did so to ensure a quorum on a board that had lost a member. She said her term was one year; and that Cooke's term was for two years. Cross said they would take oaths of office again when a new school board term begins July 1.

Cross said Brewington was trying to push into the district so he could benefit from contracts, an assertion Brewington denied. "I have no interest in that," he said Friday. "The only interest I have is in the children." Cross also complained that others were trying to hurt rather than help the district. "They've never come to sit down and ask what they could do," she said.

But wait, let's head back to Thursday's meeting, which, legal or not, offered a real-time glimpse of what's happening in the district.

The board, among other things, approved spending $750 to send three students to the school's moot court competition team upstate. It also learned that Hempstead's show choir had been invited to sing the national anthem at a Mets game. "Ask them if I can throw out the first pitch," quipped Superintendent Susan Johnson. "I can do better than Fifty Cent."

The board, on the heels of a grade-changing scandal, got a first look at a new grading policy for middle and high school students. "It shall be the policy and procedure of the district that student grades . . . shall be the grades that the student earns," according to the document, which includes a new grade-change form requiring four signatures.

The administrator handling the district's policy review also told the board that he questioned whether the 38 percent graduation rate figure that put Hempstead last among Long Island districts for 2011-2012 was correct.

At one point, Johnson talked about the expense of a significant influx of new students this year -- many of them homeless -- which drove a board decision to move money from the district's rainy day kitty to its operating fund. Cross, JoAnn Simmons and Lamont Johnson also voted to indemnify the board from potential litigation arising from the election.

Upon returning from the middle school and resuming the meeting, Cross said the ruckus was over before she arrived. Still, a few minutes later, the superintendent told the board about a group of sixth-graders who, operating as a makeshift gang, were beating and robbing classmates. Johnson said a parent, whose son was a victim, had come in that morning, and that she would ask police for help.

There also was discussion of Hempstead's Class of 2014. According to administration figures, 48 percent of 12th grade students were on track to graduate June 29, with the fate of another 34 percent resting with their results on Regents and subject exams. "Am I hearing that we have a chance at more than 80 percent?" Cross asked. "Wouldn't that be wonderful?"