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Lights-out on crowd at Hempstead school board meeting

Longtime Hempstead school board president Betty Cross, who

Longtime Hempstead school board president Betty Cross, who is embroiled in controversy over her contested re-election, looks to her fellow board members in confusion during a public meeting that erupted into chaos Thursday, June 18, 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Scores of protesters suddenly found themselves in the darkened Hempstead High School auditorium last night after they shouted for school board president Betty Cross' resignation and preservation of nearly 40 teaching positions -- before Cross abruptly adjourned the meeting and the lights went out.

The board, moments before, voted 3-2 for an investigation of district Superintendent Susan Johnson's professional conduct, saying an outside agency's evaluation is needed.

The meeting's swift end came as about 100 demonstrators chanted, "Step down now, Cross!" during the public comment period. Cross banged a gavel, but the loud calls continued.

School board candidate Maribel Touré -- who initially had the second-highest number of votes in the May 20 election and is challenging Cross' election -- began to address the trustees. A security officer took the microphone from her hand.

Elias Mestizo, president of the 530-member Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, also attempted to speak, saying, "We are not the problem. We are the solution," as the auditorium lights flickered on and off before going out. Mestizo earlier had said he was concerned about the proposed teacher layoffs.

With security guards telling people to leave, attendees used the glow from their cellphones to light their way out.

At a protest outside the school before the meeting, members of the citizens' groups New York Communities for Change, The Corridor Counts and United For Change questioned the validity of Cross' election and asserted she is at least partly to blame for a variety of problems, including a grade-changing scandal that called some students' marks into question.

The crowd chanted, "Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Failing schools have got to go," while holding signs referring to poor graduation rates and questions about management of funds.

Most of the rhetoric centered on the tenure and controversial election of Cross.

"We're calling for the board to understand that you can't steal an election," said attorney Frederick K. Brewington, who is representing Touré and filed a petition last week with state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. that alleges voter fraud and misuse of absentee ballots.

Separately, the election is being investigated by the Nassau County district attorney's office.

District officials have said the election was fair and open. Cross and district clerk Patricia Wright have not responded to requests for comment.

All voting materials have been confiscated by the DA's office, sources close to the investigation have said, and the district was served with three subpoenas.

The petition sent to King -- which names Cross, Wright and the district -- asks the education commissioner to invalidate Cross' election or to remove her from the board and allow the seat to go vacant until he renders a decision.

The petition says some residents were tricked into voting for Cross when her supporters showed up at their doorsteps in the days before the election, absentee ballots in hand, in violation of election law.

Some voters said in sworn statements accompanying the petition that they did not qualify for, nor did they ask for, absentee ballots. Some of them said they had planned to walk to the polls later on election day.

Seven candidates ran in the election for two at-large seats.

Ricky Cooke, who ran as a team with Touré, drew 802 votes on election night. Touré had 712 to Cross' 691.

On May 21, dozens of absentee ballots were counted at a hastily called meeting, and Cross beat Touré by six votes.

Of the 344 absentee ballots included in the final count, 172 were for Cross. None were for Cooke and Touré had seven, the district reported.While King can render a decision in the case while the DA's office conducts its investigation, a decision could take up to 10 months, officials have said.

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