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Fired Hempstead principals file new lawsuit against district

Three former principals who contend their professional lives were left in limbo after the Hempstead school board abruptly fired them in 2013 are suing for reinstatement, job tenure and back pay, even as the troubled district struggles to reorganize its current administration.

James Thomas, Helisse Palmore and David Evans contend in a lawsuit filed Monday in State Supreme Court in Mineola that the firings left them unable to find jobs commensurate with their former positions.

It was the second lawsuit brought by the three. In the earlier case, a State Supreme Court justice ruled in March that the terminations were technically improper because the principals had not been evaluated on their job performance, as required by state law. The judge, however, denied their request for reinstatement.

"This has really hurt me in terms of future employment," said Thomas, 51, who now is living upstate and working in a non-school job.

Thomas served between 2010 and 2013 as principal of the Academy of Business & Law, one of three divisions carved out of Hempstead High School in an effort to boost academic achievement. The school board has since abandoned the academy system, with the high school returning to its traditional unified structure.

Palmore said she worries particularly about the impact of Hempstead's frequent administrative turnover on students' instruction.

"This just kind of pulled me away from my vision of what I wanted to do for the district," Palmore said of her termination. "The kids there are terrific, and they're entitled to the best possible educational experience."

Palmore, 41, formerly was principal of Barack Obama Elementary School. She currently serves as an assistant elementary principal in Elmont.

Evans, the other plaintiff in the case, agreed that Hempstead students deserve better. He now works as a principal in New Jersey, but for significantly less money than he earned in Hempstead as head of the high school's Academy of Music & Art.

"I'd love to come back and finish what we started," said the veteran administrator, 62.

The three principals were fired along with two other top administrators at an April 2013 meeting of a politically divided school board. The three members voting in favor of the terminations, which were supported by Superintendent Susan Johnson, were Betty Cross, Shelley Brazley and JoAnn Simmons.

Cross, then the board's president, subsequently lost her board seat in a special election in October.

A new board majority voted last month to seek a potential replacement for Johnson.

Brazley and Simmons remain on the board. Brazley, who works as a Nassau County minority-affairs official, declined comment Monday on the latest lawsuit. Simmons and Cross did not return phone calls.

Nathan Jackson, who handles the Hempstead district's public relations, declined to discuss the case. "Under our attorneys' advice, we cannot comment," he said.

The lawsuit underscores the chronic troubles faced by the Hempstead district, which has long suffered from political fights over job patronage and rapid turnover of superintendents and principals.

That turnover has had a negative impact on the district's academic standing, according to state and local experts. Hempstead High School is posted on a State Education Department list of schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide. Its graduation rate in 2013 was 35.5 percent, by far the lowest on Long Island.

Hempstead's recent administrative shake-ups have taken torturous twists and turns, including a tumultuous June 19 board meeting, where lights were turned out on those attending as they shouted for Cross' resignation.

Official minutes from that meeting indicate that a board majority voted that night a second time to terminate the jobs of Thomas, Palmore and Evans. However, the attorney now representing the trio, Frederick Brewington of Hempstead, said Monday that eyewitnesses at the meeting say such a vote never took place.

Brewington said he has reported the "apparent filing of false records" to the Nassau County district attorney's office. Paul Leonard, a spokesman for that office, declined comment.

Among exhibits filed with the lawsuit were letters to each of the three former principals in May from Johnson, citing education law and the State Supreme Court judge's decision that declared "null and void" the district's earlier notice of firings. The letter, Johnson wrote, was a "replacement notice" of termination. She also wrote that she would recommend that the board, at its June 19 meeting, not grant tenure and take action again to fire the principals.

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