Three Hempstead residents have challenged the outcome of the May 17 school board election in a petition to the state education commissioner, alleging fraud in absentee balloting and seeking invalidation of the certified vote results.
Plans for trustees’ reorganizational meeting on Tuesday remained in place, however, after the state Education Department this week denied a request that sought to stop the swearing-in of current board president LaMont Johnson to a new term.
School boards across the Island normally hold a reorganizational meeting shortly after July 1, the start of systems’ fiscal year.
The petition contesting the election results was brought by district residents the Rev. William A. Watson, Cheryl Wyche and former board member Shelley Brazley. It names the district, Johnson, district clerk Patricia Wright and new board member Melissa Figueroa as respondents.
The request to stop Johnson’s swearing-in — called a stay — was denied Monday, the same day the state received the petition. The district and other parties in the case were given notification of that by Friday.
The underlying appeal regarding the election and balloting remains pending before Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, a spokesman said.
Three at-large seats were open in the election, to be filled by the top three vote-getters. Two of the seats were for full three-year terms, and the remaining seat was for a one-year term left by the resignation of a board member. Eight candidates were on the ballot.
The petitioners claim that absentee ballots weren’t properly registered, issued, collected and inspected. Because of that, the petition indicates, several things occurred: Johnson, who would have fallen short in the machine vote, was re-elected to a three-year term; Figueroa was elected to a seat with a one-year term, rather than a three-year term; and Brazley was not among the top three finishers.
“This election, and the mockery into which it has been turned, is plagued by open and obvious fraud, manipulation, violation of rules, violation of law and disregard for any semblance of integrity,” the petition says.
David B. Gates, who had been filling a vacancy on the board, was elected to a three-year term, and incumbent JoAnn Simmons lost her seat. Johnson and Simmons, who ran as a team, got the most votes from absentee ballots counted late on election night, which allowed Johnson to rise to top vote-getter.
Among the petition respondents, both Johnson and Melissa Figueroa dismissed the allegations, while Wright declined comment. Johnson said the denial of the stay request is a sign of the case’s weakness.
“They don’t have a case because nothing happened,” Johnson said. He said fraud allegations are false: “I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing. I didn’t condone any wrongdoing and I did not ask anybody to do anything wrong.”
Johnson and Figueroa called the petition defective and said it mirrored one filed on behalf of board member Maribel Touré when she successfully challenged election results over absentee ballots in her 2014 run against longtime trustee Betty Cross.
“There is just a lot of cut-and-paste,” Figueroa said of the filing. “That is why I say it’s frivolous. It’s not done by an actual attorney and it’s riddled with errors.”
Watson, the lead petitioner, said the action is about fighting fraud. Brazley and Wyche could not be reached for comment.
“The district clerk was approached several times during the day [of the election] by poll watchers and people who wanted to see that everything was done right . . . and it all fell on deaf ears,” said Watson, a church pastor in Freeport and Westbury.
In the meantime, the Hempstead schools were in with the new and out with the old on Friday, as the district welcomed a new interim superintendent and swore in Gates to a full term.
The new interim superintendent, Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, met with individual board members and went on a tour of facilities. The board appointed him in a late-night resolution on Wednesday night.
“I’m meeting with as many stakeholders as I can to get their sense of where we are,” Atiba-Weza said. “Their sense of what they expect of me, and just to get the lay of the land. There’s been no orientation and/or transition, so I have to rely on the people here to get the information that I need.”