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Ousted Hempstead school board member regains seat after state order

Former Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson as

Former Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson as he arrives to be sworn in and reinstated to the board, Monday Nov. 27, 2017 at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School. Credit: Former Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson as he arrives to be sworn in and reinstated to the board, Monday Nov. 27, 2017 at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School.

Former Hempstead school board member LaMont Johnson regained his seat Monday after State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia ordered his reinstatement — five months after the board of education removed him over allegations he disclosed employee data to a political ally’s campaign.

Elia, in her 21-page decision Monday, admonished the district for its handling of the matter and said Johnson did not receive “sufficient due process” to defend himself against the charges, which were reviewed in closed-door hearings in the days before a shift in board power.

The board did not show how Johnson secured any data and failed to provide him “with a full and fair opportunity to refute such charges before his removal,” Elia wrote. She noted that Johnson had been hospitalized for several days for a heart condition.

Elia’s ruling also annulled a June 30 board resolution appointing trustee Mary Crosson as his successor.

“I am back,” Johnson, 46, told supporters who had gathered at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School for an afternoon swearing-in ceremony. “I was very happy. I was very relieved to hear the news,” Johnson said in an interview.

Johnson joins allies Randy Stith and David B. Gates on the five-member board and elevates a new majority.

The development raises questions about the future of the current superintendent, Shimon Waronker, who was appointed by the old board majority and brought in a new leadership team to run the district. Elia’s office has yet to address that question, but in her decision issued Monday, she urged officials to keep the district’s focus on improving student achievement.

A spokeswoman for Elia’s office, Emily DeSantis, declined further comment Monday, noting the possibility of further litigation.

Waronker, who has a four-year contract with the district, said he had not yet spoken to the new majority about his future, but hoped to work cooperatively in improving local schools.

“Politics — we’ve got to put it aside for the sake of the children,” he said.

Johnson’s removal came amid a power struggle between two rival community factions. School board president Maribel Touré had headed the majority that included trustees Gwendolyn Jackson and Melissa Figueroa, while Johnson and trustee David Gates served as the minority.

Stith defeated Figueroa in the May 16 election and took office July 1. On June 30, Touré, Figueroa and Jackson voted 3-1 to remove Johnson after the hearings had concluded. The board then voted to appoint Crosson.

Touré on Monday night defended the actions of the former majority and said the group is considering an appeal of Elia’s decision.

Much of the division on the board stemmed over the hiring of Waronker. Gates and Johnson opposed his hiring, and Waronker recently appointed 11 key staffers, including a deputy superintendent, business manager and four principals.

On Monday, Johnson declined to discuss the future of Waronker and his appointees.

In her decision, Elia wrote that, in its “haste to investigate, charge and remove” Johnson “from office by an arbitrary deadline of June 30, 2017, when the board membership would be shifting,” the board “failed to balance its desire to quickly establish its case, with its need to ensure due process was provided.”

The district has struggled financially and with student achievement. Elia appointed former Herricks superintendent Jack Bierwirth in September to serve as “distinguished educator” in the 8,500-student district, the second time in state history that an official has been tapped to fill that oversight role.

Bierwirth, who is empowered by the state to develop improvement plans to boost student achievement and overhaul district procedures and operations, declined to comment Monday and referred all media questions to Elia’s office.

Elia’s decision contained a rebuke: “I again admonish the district and the board, as I have in previous appeals, to take all steps necessary to ensure that such controversy does not continue and that the district’s leadership and resources are focused on the paramount goal of providing successful outcomes for students.”

Elia said board actions approved by Crosson would not be invalidated.

Trustee Randy Stith said in an interview: “I am excited, not for myself, but for the students of the community. We can finally lay this issue to rest.”

Figueroa, the former trustee, said the decision was “very sad” and said the board had solid technical evidence that district personnel records had been compromised.

With Chau Lam

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