Editorial: State must handle Hempstead election decisively

Maribel Toure, attorney Fred Brewington and Ricky Cooke Maribel Touré, attorney Fred Brewington and Ricky Cooke at a news conference at Brewington's Hempstead office Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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The Hempstead school board election mess is headed to Albany for resolution by state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who has a difficult task ahead.

King and the state education system have been concerned about the poor-performing, badly run district for years but have been reluctant to intervene directly as they did, ineffectively, in Roosevelt. Now they have no choice -- because all the chronic dysfunction and claims of corruption and cronyism are about to land in King's lap.

He will need to move swiftly in his review of the claimed irregularities in Tuesday's voting because the district is being torn apart by the controversy. He also needs to be thorough -- because it's a complicated case with a byzantine struggle for power at its heart.

The protest stems from the counting of a much-disputed group of absentee ballots that allowed board president Betty J. Cross to retain her seat by giving her six votes more than challenger Maribel C. Touré.

Cross -- whose 25-year reign has been marked by nepotistic hiring and a lack of transparency -- picked up 28 votes to 1 for Touré.

Among the issues: Some 231 absentee ballots were cast through last Friday. Beginning Monday, the day before the election, another 301 were requested and voted. The numbers strain credulity.

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There's more. Statements from Hempstead residents claim that people came to their doors asking them to fill in absentee ballots for Cross right then and saying the ballots would be delivered for them. Other witness statements attest to intimidation at the polls of Latino voters in particular.

As he delves into the dispute, King needs to understand its context. In Hempstead, there is a cauldron of anger and frustration at the way the district has been run, which manifested itself on Election Day. There also is a large cadre that owes its jobs to Cross and is afraid to speak against her.

If wrong was done, King must act decisively -- for all who want change in Hempstead, before another generation of students is lost.

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