Editorial: Hempstead's chance for a new start

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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Change does not come easily in the Hempstead school district. So it should come as no surprise that those working to transform the troubled system did not get everything they wanted in state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.'s ruling Thursday regarding May's controversial school board election.

But they got enough to believe that change is possible.

King found that the actions of then-school board president Betty Cross and her supporters were so suspect that the results must be thrown out and a special election held. King's decision was in response to a petition by a losing board candidate alleging voter fraud and voter intimidation by Cross and her minions.

It is noteworthy that King let stand the victory of Rickey A. Cooke Sr., one of two insurgents who ran as a team and took dead aim at Cross -- and her long reign of nepotistic hiring, backroom deals, penchant for secrecy, hostility to parent and teacher input, and indifference to poor relations between blacks and Latinos. Cooke finished far ahead in the balloting, a result questioned by no one.

It's also worth noting that King found merit in affidavits detailing suspect absentee ballots and administrative failures related to the ballots, testimony from voters that was like a bright light in a house decaying from years of abuse and neglect. Now state and district officials must ensure that King's ruling acts like a disinfectant: The special election must be monitored to guarantee its integrity and make sure no shenanigans take place. King, to his credit, ruled the district must work with state monitors.

The school district, which conducts school board elections, should consider holding the special election on Nov. 4, the date of this year's general election. Nassau Board of Elections officials say technically it can be done. And that would guarantee the widest turnout and greatest oversight, with the jobs of governor, state comptroller, attorney general and all state legislators up for grabs.

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On election night in May, Cooke and running mate Maribel C. Touré seemed to have won the two open board seats. Cooke finished first and Touré second, 21 votes ahead of Cross. But a controversial counting of contested absentee ballots the next day resulted in Cross being declared the winner over Touré by six votes. Of 343 absentee ballots in the final count, Cross received 172 votes, Touré seven and Cooke six. King found that disparity "highly suspect."

It is disappointing, though understandable, that King was not able to put Touré in office; there simply was no precedent for him to do that. But he is to be commended for acting quickly and decisively.

King found the allegations in Touré's petition troubling enough that in July he ordered Cross to step down until he delivered his ruling. Now Cross' opponents must rally again to do what they seemed to already have accomplished -- win at the ballot box.

Cooke and Touré -- both endorsed by Newsday -- were supported by civic groups that worked to increase awareness of the issues, bolster turnout, and engage people who never had voted in a school board race. On election night, they showed change is possible against considerable odds -- if enough people work hard enough to get their message to enough voters who have enough courage to make a stand.

Now it's time to do it again, and make a change that sticks.

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