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Hempstead school board member questions other trustees’ village jobs

Hempstead school board trustees Melissa Figueroa, left, LaMont

Hempstead school board trustees Melissa Figueroa, left, LaMont Johnson, center, and David Gates. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp; Jeffrey Basinger; Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A Hempstead school trustee has asked the state’s highest education official to weigh in on her claim that the Hempstead Village jobs held by two of her board colleagues pose a conflict that could harm the education offered by the school district.

In her letter to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Melissa Figueroa notes that school board members David Gates and LaMont Johnson hold positions with the village municipal government: Johnson as an elected member of its governing body and Gates as a research assistant reporting to the village trustees.

The concern, Figueroa said, is that Johnson has power over Gates’ employment and $100,000-a-year salary and that could sway Gates’ votes on the school board. Johnson is paid $28,560 as a village trustee.

“When you’re sitting across the table now, your fellow [school] trustee is your superior,” Figueroa said of the Gates-Johnson relationship. “You’re no longer equal colleagues on the board of education.” She sent the letter to Elia on April 10.

Her questions, raised soon before Tuesday’s school board election in the troubled district, play out along fault lines that divide its five-member board: Figueroa, school board president Maribel Touré and Gwendolyn Jackson usually vote the same way, while Gates and Johnson typically vote together.

Divisions on the board were evident at the April 27 meeting, when Shimon Waronker was appointed district superintendent in a 3-2 vote along those lines.

Jeanne Beattie, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department, said the agency had received Figueroa’s letter but declined to discuss it further. “Because the commissioner may be required to rule on an appeal or appeals arising from this matter, we cannot comment,” Beattie said.

Both men said their jobs with the village do not pose any problem in regard to their school board positions.

Johnson, a former Hempstead village police officer who has served on the school board since 2013, noted he was elected to both posts. “That’s what the people wanted,” he said. “The people spoke.”

Gates, who is pastor at Miracle Christian Center in Hempstead, said, “My being a school board trustee and working for the Village of Hempstead is not a conflict of interest. Nor is it a compromise of professional integrity.”

Opinions in 1981 and 1991 from the state attorney general’s office states that school board members can serve simultaneously as a village mayor or trustee.

But Nancy Rosenthal, president of the Nassau County League of Women Voters, said she believes that “the appearance is such that there’s too much within the family” regarding Gates’ and Johnson’s involvements.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said, “There are some instances in which wearing two hats, two powerful hats, might result in a degree of imbalance or lack of fairness.”

Figueroa, too, has had ties to another village entity. She serves on the Hempstead Public Library Board, an unpaid post.

Johnson abstained from an April 4 vote in which the village board approved charging the Hempstead school district up to $23,400 to use 30 parking spaces in a village lot. However, he voted for Gates’ hire.

As for Gates’ position on the school board, Johnson said, “He has proven in the past that he votes his own conscience. If he thinks you’re wrong, he’ll vote against you.”

Hempstead is not the only community with people holding elected office in both the municipality and the school district.

Freeport Village trustee Ronald Ellerbe has served on the Freeport school board since 1996 and was elected to the village board in 2013. He is paid $20,287.80 in annual salary. He was elected to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services of Nassau County in 2007.

“They like the idea that I’m serving in those capacities. It’s rare that issues come up that I have to recuse myself,” Ellerbe said. “I’m on guard for when it does happen.”

The mayors of Hempstead and Freeport said they did not object to village trustees also serving on the school board.

With Stefanie Dazio

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