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Residents sue Hempstead schools over trustee’s 2017 removal

Acting Hempstead schools Superintendent Regina Armstrong looks over

Acting Hempstead schools Superintendent Regina Armstrong looks over a legal summons and complaint filed against the district that was given to her on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, after an evening budget hearing at Hempstead High School. Credit: Danielle Silverman

A group of Hempstead residents is suing the Hempstead school district, as well as two current and two former board members, saying $405,000 was misspent on the June 2017 proceedings to remove trustee LaMont Johnson and should be recovered.

“The tax money that they wasted, they just need to put it back, that’s all. We need it to go back to the district,” said Shelley Brazley, a former school board member and one of four plaintiffs.

The complaint and summons, filed Tuesday in state Supreme Court in Nassau County, names the school district, current board president Maribel Touré, vice president Gwendolyn Jackson, and former board members Melissa Figueroa and Mary Crosson.

Brazley and the other Hempstead residents bringing the legal action — the Rev. William A. Watson, Cynthia McKay and Patricia McNeil — are represented by Donald Vernon of Vernon & Associates in Jamaica, Queens. Vernon did not returns calls for comment.

The four plaintiffs say that the board members last year “caused waste and injury to the district’s property and funds” by proceeding with removal hearings against Johnson, according to the summons document.

Johnson later challenged his removal in a petition to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who reinstated him last fall.

Figueroa, in an interview Wednesday, said she stands by the board’s decision to remove Johnson. She called the legal action politically motivated.

Jackson agreed, saying the plaintiffs are “trying to discredit” her and Touré before Tuesday’s school board election.

Touré and Jackson are up for re-election and are running as a team, vying against Carmen Ayala and Patricia Spleen, who also are running together.

“It’s sickening to me that once again they’re going to be wasting taxpayer money to try to defend this lawsuit,” Jackson said. “And it’s frivolous. It’s just lining the lawyers’ pockets.”

Touré and Crosson did not return calls seeking comment.

Nicole Epstein of Gotham Government Relations and Communications, the media relations firm representing the district, declined to comment on the legal action and said the board’s attorneys are reviewing it.

Johnson was removed from the board on June 30 after private hearings overseen by a hearing officer, based on allegations that he earlier had disclosed the names and addresses of district employees to the campaign of Randy Stith, who was elected to the board on May 16, 2017.

Following Johnson’s removal, the board appointed Crosson to the seat.

Johnson appealed to Elia. In a 21-page decision issued Nov. 27, she reinstated him, saying he had not received due process. She noted that he had been hospitalized for several days for a heart condition during the hearing process. The board also failed to show how Johnson secured any data, Elia wrote.

The complaint and summons received by the court this week allege that the money paid to attorneys and the hearing officer — more than $405,000 — was misspent. The dollar amount includes $70,000 paid to Vernon & Associates, which provided legal services to Johnson.

“This lawsuit, it really is to send a clear message that there are some of us that are still in Hempstead, and we’re really tired of the foolishness, and we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and fight for our community, fight for the legacy of this community,” Brazley said.

Brazley, McKay, McNeil and board candidates Ayala and Spleen are members of Hempstead for Hempstead, a grass roots advocacy group focused on “promoting the common good and general welfare of people” in the school district and the village, according to a mission statement provided to Newsday.

Johnson on Wednesday said he did not provide the voter information to Stith last year.

Of the legal action, he said, “I think it’s about the residents. They have a constitutional right that they feel the money was misused and the remedy was to go to court. I think they’re within their right to do so.”

Trustees Stith and David Gates did not return a request for comment.

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