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Hempstead school board majority vows at meeting to be inclusive

Hempstead school board trustee Randy Stith with Jack

Hempstead school board trustee Randy Stith with Jack Bierwirth, the district's "distinguished educator," during an emergency session at Hempstead High School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

The three-trustee majority of Hempstead’s embattled school board pledged Wednesday night to take a more inclusionary approach going forward and decided against action on a variety of district matters until all five panelists can attend.

Two board members, Maribel Touré and Gwendolyn Jackson, who voted to oust trustee LaMont Johnson and now find themselves in the minority, did not attend the emergency session — the first since Johnson’s state-ordered reinstatement.

Five months ago, Johnson was removed from the board amid a power struggle between two rival community factions.

Touré told Newsday before Wednesday night’s meeting that her Manhattan job prevented her from attending the 5 p.m. session. Other board members rejected her request to move the time to 7 p.m., Touré said.

The current majority, David B. Gates, Johnson, and Randy Stith, did strike one political note at the meeting: They voted to end the use of a law firm, Raiser & Kenniff, which has an office in Mineola and had served as special counsel on work related to the former board majority’s efforts to permanently oust Johnson.

The Farmingdale-based law firm of Guercio & Guercio now serves as the district’s general counsel.

Stith, who presided over the meeting on a temporary “pro tem” basis, said he and his board allies chose to hold off taking further action because “we want to be transparent with the district in what we are doing.”

The majority board members “don’t want to shut out anyone,” said Stith, who was elected in May, ousting incumbent Melissa Figueroa.

Johnson’s return to the five-member board earlier this week has shifted the political balance and raised questions over whether the new majority will be willing to cooperate with other trustees in maintaining the stability of one of Long Island’s most troubled school districts.

After the meeting, Johnson said the board wanted to pursue a conciliatory approach, and Touré might continue to serve as the board’s president.

“It can’t be about adults fighting all the time,” Johnson told Newsday.

Earlier in the day, Touré said in a phone interview that she was “a little scared” over the district’s prospects.

In April, Touré’s three-member majority at the time brought in a new superintendent, Shimon Waronker, an administrator noted for improving dangerous and academically struggling schools in New York City. Waronker, in turn, brought in a new 11-member leadership team, including a deputy superintendent, business manager, four school principals and four “master” teachers assigned the task of training school faculty.

“I’m worried that they’re going to undo everything that we have done,” Touré said Wednesday.

Douglas Thomas, a Hempstead attorney who represented Johnson in his bid to regain his seat, refuted the notion that the trustees in the majority intend any disruption.

“To the extent that there is a new school board majority, that majority will be working in a pragmatic and prudent manner that is in the interest of the children, parents and taxpayers of the Hempstead Union Free School District,” Thomas said.

Figueroa, Jackson and Touré voted to oust Johnson in June after a power struggle. Opponents of Johnson said he had disclosed district employees’ data to the school board campaign of Stith — an assertion Johnson denied.

On Monday, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia ordered Johnson’s reinstatement. She ruled that Johnson did not receive “sufficient due process” to defend himself against the accusations, which were reviewed in closed-door meetings in the days before the newly elected Stith was sworn in.

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