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Protest at Hempstead school district budget talk

Hempstead school board President LaMont Johnson, running for

Hempstead school board President LaMont Johnson, running for re-election, talks Thursday, May 5, 2016, as candidate Melissa Figueroa, right, and others mock payment in 2013-14 to the district's superintendent. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Hempstead school board President LaMont Johnson held a news conference Thursday afternoon to tout a proposed spending plan he said would balance the budget, while reducing spending “to deliver the best education for all our children.”

He was also promoting a May 10 budget hearing and putting forth the message that “for the first time in recent years we have been able to keep our budget in check” by decreasing spending “a small percentage.”

But Johnson, who’s running for re-election, did not count on one of the other candidates showing up with five of her supporters and a competing message.

Candidate Melissa Figueroa arrived with the residents holding mock checks, made out to Superintendent Susan Johnson, to represent the $32,769 that a state comptroller’s inquiry found the district had overpaid her in the 2013-14 school year.

Susan Johnson, who’s not related to the board president, agreed to repay those funds, but Figueroa has pointed to the mix-up as an example of the district’s financial disarray.

While television news cameras rolled, Figueroa also criticized the district for approving a budget amount of $189,167,890 in April without giving residents details on the plan.

“Now the district is scrambling to hold a new budget hearing meeting, one which is taking place after the board has already approved the budget, and the community is still left in the dark,” Figueroa said. “This is the kind of thing that continues to go on in Hempstead, that we can no longer tolerate.”

When Johnson started speaking and Figueroa and her supporters approached with their signs, he asked them to “step back” and threatened to cancel the event or to take it inside the district’s administration building. She refused to leave and he went on.

“Hempstead residents pay a very high property tax,” he told several reporters at the news conference. “We are doing our best to have the academics reach the high level that the taxes are” and need state and federal aid to cope with student population increases.

The district’s $189.2 million budget proposal would decrease spending by 0.40 percent while increasing the tax levy by 0.10 percent and proposing to end the 2016-17 school year with a fund balance of $1.2 million.

That would be a fiscal turnaround in a district that overspent by $8.6 million in 2014-15 and started the current school year $2 million in the hole, according to the district’s external auditor.

But the fiscal change is expected to come with cuts to the district’s staff of teachers, teacher assistants and renegotiated transportation contracts, according to the district’s business manager.

Johnson dismissed Figueroa’s criticism as “campaigning” during an election year. He said all five board members supported the budget amount, including her allies on the board, as well as the plan for the superintendent to gradually repay owed money.

“We are not hiding anything. ”

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