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Hempstead school trustee demands apology from Regent Roger Tilles

LaMont Johnson cites newspaper article in which Tilles was quoted as calling the school district “a zoo,” saying the words were inflammatory and racist.

On Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson called on Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, to step down.  (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewwicz)

Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson on Monday demanded a public apology from Regent Roger Tilles, saying that comments attributed to Tilles in a recent New York Times article were “very inflammatory, racist remarks.”

Johnson, at an afternoon news conference in Garden City, spoke specifically of Tilles’ words in a Feb. 2 article on the newspaper’s front page, which quoted Tilles as saying of the district: “It’s a zoo,” and adding, “I’ve been following it for 13 years and it has not gotten any better.”

He said Tilles “should make a public apology to the students of Hempstead, the staff of Hempstead and the Hempstead community as a whole.”

Further, the school board trustee said, he believes Tilles should “really think about stepping down if that’s the way he feels about Hempstead, a majority-minority district with over 8,000 students. If that’s how he feels about the students, I think he should step down.”

A zoo, Johnson said, “is a place where animals are observed for scientific reasons or observed by the public.”

Tilles, of Great Neck, said in a telephone interview Monday night that he plans to stay on the board, though he agreed he should have used a different word in his characterization.

“I do not intend to step down because I’m the largest advocate that has been at the state level for improvements in Hempstead, and I certainly am not going to step down because I used a word that I probably should not have used,” Tilles said.

“I guess that can be considered an apology for using it,” he said, adding, “It was meant to show the dysfunction of the way the board has operated, and I could have used better words, that’s clear. My intent was to help the district and to point out some of the problems the district has, and I don’t apologize for trying to bring that out.”

Tilles is in his 13th year on the Regents board, which sets state education policy.

Johnson, one of five trustees on the Hempstead board, said at the news conference that he was speaking only for himself.

However, the “It’s a zoo” remark was a topic of discussion at Thursday’s school board meeting, among both board trustees and members of the public who attended.

Board president Maribel Touré, in response to a district employee who raised the issue during the meeting’s public comment period, called the comments “disgraceful” and said she would write a letter to Tilles.

Board member Randy Stith, in a telephone interview Monday, said he was “absolutely outraged” by Tilles’ comments. Stith expressed his disdain in a Facebook post on Feb. 2.

“I did take offense to his comments,” Stith said Monday. “Hempstead is not a zoo, and the students nor staff nor the board are animals. He should have phrased his words much better. He is a man of intellect. . . . Not only should he offer an immediate apology, but he should also consider stepping down from his post.”

Johnson, at the news conference, said he was “very offended” by Tilles’ words.

“I think a person of his stature should never have said such words,” he said. “It’s very negative, and I feel that a district that already faces challenges needs people that are going to help the district, instead of speaking ill of the district.”

The lengthy newspaper article described the low-performing district’s troubles, as well as actions at the state and local levels to bring about a turnaround. Tilles was the first person quoted, with the remarks attributed to him appearing in the fourth paragraph.

Members of the Regents serve five-year terms. Of the 17 board members, 13 are elected by the State Legislature — one from each of the state’s judicial districts — and four serve at large.

Tilles, 71, first was elected to the panel on April 1, 2005, as the representative for the 10th Judicial District, which covers Long Island. He was re-elected to his second five-year term that began on April 1, 2010, and a third term that began on April 1, 2015.

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