Betty Cross says it's 'time for a final curtain call'

Hempstead school board president Betty Cross adjourns a

Hempstead school board president Betty Cross adjourns a meeting of the Hempstead School Board on the evening of June 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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Betty J Cross, after a tumultuous quarter-century on Hempstead's school board, said she has been thinking of calling it quits.

"I'm grateful they've allowed me to serve this long," Cross told Newsday before she was bumped from the board's presidency Tuesday night. "But there's a time for a final curtain call."

Cross' central role as the longest-serving board trustee in one of Long Island's most politicized school districts spans parts of five decades.

A longtime civic activist and mother of three, Cross was first elected to Hempstead's board in 1978. She has served seven terms and is starting on an eighth, coming back from election defeats in 1988 and 1995 to recapture a board seat amid district administrative upheavals and state investigations.

Her current term -- in a contested election that is under appeal to the state education commissioner -- runs only through June 2015 because it completes the remainder of the full, three-year term of a trustee who resigned.

Local residents attribute Cross' longevity on the board largely to her extensive charity work and personal one-on-one charm, though they acknowledge she has sometimes appeared brusque -- even imperious -- when presiding over board meetings.

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"If you separate her work on the school board from her role as a woman, she's a person who provides turkeys to families, who provides toys to children," said Brigette Barker, 43, a school volunteer and mother of six.

In a Monday interview, Cross, 68, had said she may serve out the term and not seek election again. She stepped down from the board once before in 2005, citing unspecified health problems.

Whether Cross can stretch her time as a trustee from 25 years to 26 depends largely on forces beyond her control.

On May 21 -- the day after the election -- she was declared winner of the school board seat by six votes, all absentee ballots. A rival candidate charged fraud and petitioned the state to overturn results. State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has said he will decide the case as quickly as possible, given the urgency of the local situation.

Hempstead is among the poorest districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and its student achievement generally ranks at or near the bottom for the region. The district experiences frequent fights over job patronage, as reflected in its often raucous board meetings.

Cross, like other school trustees, has seen her share of bare-knuckles politicking.

In January 1979, less than eight months after her first election, Cross, in a sudden emotional outburst at a school meeting, accused a village politician of "selling these kids down the drain." Opponents accused her of pushing her own candidate for village office.

Last week, Cross abruptly shut down another board meeting after about 100 demonstrators showed up to protest planned teacher layoffs and shout for her resignation.

One of Long Island's chief education policymakers contended that Cross, while not solely to blame for Hempstead's problems, bears a share of responsibility.

"I can't pin it on any one person," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, the region's representative to the state Board of Regents. "I can only say that under her leadership, it has clearly been dysfunctional."

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