Dobie: Wrinkle in the Hempstead race

Steve McFarland, an organizer with the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, discusses the campaign to replace two members of the Hempstead school board. “This election really seemed like an incredible opportunity where all of these different community leaders and organizations said something needs to be done,” he said.

Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday Michael Dobie

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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UPDATE 5:30 p.m.: The absentee ballot count Wednesday afternoon in the Hempstead school board race, to no one’s surprise, produced enough votes to move board president Betty Cross into second place, ahead of challenger Maribel Touré.

According to sources present at the count, Cross went from 691 votes to 719 while Touré went from 712 to 713. That means that 28 of the 29 absentee ballots counted were cast for Cross, a complete and incomprehensible departure from the usual relationship between absentee ballots and those cast in person.

But this new “result” doesn’t mean that Cross is going to retain her seat, despite the fact that the board swore her in late Wednesday afternoon. The whole mess is due in State Supreme Court Thursday morning and questions abound.

First, it seems clear the Hempstead district defied the court order issued Tuesday night enjoining the district from opening or counting those absentee ballots. Judges do not take kindly to such actions.

More importantly, the judge has to determine whether those absentee ballots — and a whole bunch of others — were validly collected. That was the point of the lawsuit filed Tuesday night (below).

At the end of Friday, according to court papers, 231 absentee ballots had been printed and collected. Beginning Monday morning, another 301 people allegedly went to the district and requested absentee ballots, which were voted that day. The number strains credulity.

The ballots counted Wednesday afternoon were a subset of those 301, according to sources. Supposedly, around 60 were sent to the Board of Elections for verification and the board said only 30 or so could be verified as registered voters.

Those were the ones counted. Why were only 60 or so sent to the board for verification? What’s the implication of the 30 or so the board bounced? What of the other 241 or so that were not sent to the board? And what about the original 231?

Is there footage from surveillance cameras that would show people coming to the district for ballots? What about the log maintained by the district of voters who come in and request ballots? And what about the two witnesses who, court papers say, supposedly verified the ballot requests?

It’s going to take a while to sort this out. There’s one thing we know for certain at this point: Challenger Ricky A. Cooke Sr. has won a seat on the board and incumbent Leonard Myers is out.

As for Touré and Cross, we’ll see.

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UPDATE 2 p.m.: Not so fast. There is a wrinkle in the Hempstead school board race. The board is scheduled to open 31 absentee ballots this afternoon it says could swing the race, according to an attorney for the district.

Newcomer Ricky A. Cooke Sr. is secure as the top vote-getter with 802 votes. His running mate, fellow first-time candidate Maribel C. Touré, finished with 712 votes, followed by board president Betty J. Cross with 691. One question is whether Cross would gain enough votes to overtake Touré.

A second question is whether opening the ballots is in defiance of a court order issued Tuesday night which enjoins the district “from finalizing the election for school Board Trustee or counting absentee ballots printed and/or collected by PATRICIA WRIGHT, Clerk for the Hempstead School District.”

Civil rights attorney Fred Brewington, who filed the lawsuit and supported Cooke and Touré in the election, said opening the ballots would constitute defiance of the court order.

In the meantime, rumors are flying about when and where the ballots are being opened and who will be present to observe.

Stay tuned.

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Change came to the Hempstead school district in a big way Tuesday night as voters apparently elected two school board challengers whose withering criticism of the current board pointed to its lack of leadership and transparency, cronyism and disdain of parents and teachers.

First-time candidates Ricky A. Cooke Sr. and Maribel C. Touré finished first and second, respectively, in the seven-person race, knocking out board president and longtime fixture Betty J. Cross and her colleague Leonard Myers.

A lawsuit challenging scores of absentee ballots has been filed by civil rights attorney Fred Brewington, who supported Cooke and Touré, but Brewington said the outcome of the lawsuit will not change the results of the election. Cooke and Touré appear to be the victors, no matter what.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of this result for one of Long Island’s poorest-performing school districts, one that has been stifled for so long by an insidious lack of leadership.

Cross has been a board member for 25 years and was in her second stint as board president. Newsday’s editorial board recently described her as “the heart of the board’s dysfunction” and commented that her tenure “has been marked by nepotistic hiring, backroom deals, a lack of transparency, high turnover of key administrators, indifference to poor relations between blacks and Latinos, and hostility to parent and teacher input.” Cross engineered the appointment in December of Myers, her former campaign manager and close confidante.

Good riddance to both.

Cooke and Touré will take their place on Hempstead’s five-person board on July 1. They will vastly improve the current board’s lack of transparency and its poor relationship with parents and teachers. But they cannot on their own lift Hempstead’s Island-worst graduation rate, fix its shoddy facilities or repair fractured race relations between blacks and Latinos. To do that, they need to build coalitions with other school board members who also see those as essential goals. And the residents who spoke forcefully in the voting booth need to attend board meetings, offer ideas and criticism, and press for change.

It won’t be easy, but finally the process of fixing Hempstead can begin.