Hempstead's new school board President Lamont Johnson wants to make the 6,600-student district safer, boost its low graduation rate, increase transparency and bring together all sides to benefit the classroom, he said Wednesday.
Johnson -- in an interview the day after he was unanimously elected to lead the five-member board after controversial President Betty Cross was ousted -- said he's aware change could come quickly to the district. Its May 20 election is being contested at the state level and is under investigation by the Nassau County district attorney's office.
He stressed his hope for continuity, saying he wants to keep top administrators, including superintendent Susan Johnson and Reginald Stroughn, the high school's executive principal whose last day on the job was June 30.
"I believe in Hempstead," the new board president said. "I believe in the children of Hempstead, the staff and the schools. We have started to turn the corner, but we can do much better."
Susan Johnson, who is not related to Lamont Johnson, and Stroughn could not be reached for comment.
The change in the five-member board's leadership came after weeks of unrest, with Cross' re-election in dispute. Another candidate, Maribel Touré, has alleged voter fraud and petitioned state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to remove Cross from office and invalidate the election. Crowds have packed every meeting since she was sworn in, calling for her to step down.
At Tuesday night's annual reorganization meeting, Cross' bid to repeat as president was voted down 3-2.
Johnson, 42, who retired as a police officer from the Hempstead Village force last year, Wednesday explained his stance on several matters, including the board's vote last month to investigate the superintendent -- an action that later was rescinded.
Johnson said he went along with it only for the sake of transparency, and he didn't think anyone would find wrongdoing.
"We're not hiding anything," he said, adding that if that move were handled improperly, the district would have opened itself to a lawsuit.
Regarding Stroughn -- who had questioned the validity of some students' marks, asserting he was shut out of the grade-review process -- he credited the principal with reducing violence at the high school.
"He set order and rules that people have been following," the board president said. "I'm hopeful that he comes back."
And while Cross has been heavily criticized, Johnson said he's glad to have her guidance as she takes on her new role as the board's treasurer.
"Betty Cross has many years of experience," Johnson said. "There are many things she knows that myself and other board members don't. And she's willing to share that information."Johnson also said he'd like to work more closely with village officials.
"The village and the school are considered two separate entities, but we need to come together because it benefits everybody," he said.
Mayor Wayne J. Hall Sr. said he welcomes the collaboration and Johnson's leadership.
"No one is going to want to come into my village and send their child to a school that is dysfunctional," he said. "The overall health of our village depends on our school district. We don't have to be last on the list of anything. Our kids are just as smart as everyone else."
Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents, called the change in school board leadership "a good sign." Tilles, a longtime critic of Cross, expressed doubt that significant improvement in the district would be seen quickly, but said "the signals are there that people are not going to be getting away with what they got away with before."
Johnson said he plans to find a strong assistant superintendent. Julius Brown held the role until January, when he was fired by the board after admitting to rounding up final course grades of 63 and 64 to 65.
Also key, he said, is finding someone to fill the job of head of security.Johnson, a 1989 graduate of Hempstead High School, said he earned a criminal justice degree from Nassau Community College before joining the NYPD in 1994. He worked in the 23rd and 30th precincts, he said.
He joined the Hempstead Village force as a patrol officer in 1997 and worked an overnight shift throughout his years there. He has been on disability since 2007 because of a leg injury, he said. The district website is erroneous in saying he works in security, he said, though he had done paid security work before he was injured.