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Hempstead school board's leadership may change hands

Hempstead school board president Betty Cross adjourns a

Hempstead school board president Betty Cross adjourns a meeting of the Hempstead School Board on the evening of June 23, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Hempstead school board trustee Betty Cross' leadership position is up for a vote Tuesday night at the district's reorganization meeting after chaotic recent gatherings and weeks of protest by residents and activists who say her re-election was unlawful.

The May 20 vote is being challenged with a petition to the state education commissioner alleging voter fraud and misuse of absentee ballots.

The five-member board is to select new officers at Tuesday night's meeting, scheduled for 7 at Hempstead High School.

Cross and newcomer Ricky Cooke, who got the most votes, were sworn in May 21. Candidate Maribel Touré, found to be the second-highest vote-getter on election night, was edged out by six votes for Cross when absentee ballots were counted that day.

Sergio Argueta, a longtime activist and organizer with the grassroots group The Corridor Counts, said he and others will "make our presence felt" at every meeting.

"We definitely want to witness whatever moves the board makes from this point forward, until Maribel Touré joins Ricky Cooke and the rest of that board," he said Monday.

None of the board members returned calls Monday.

Touré filed a petition June 12 that asks Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to invalidate the election or provide more rapid interim relief -- similar to a temporary injunction -- by removing Cross from her post and allowing the seat to go vacant until the matter is decided.

Austin Graff, an attorney for the district, said it has until July 17 to reply to Touré's request for interim relief and until July 31 to respond to the full petition.

He has said the election was fair and conducted properly.

A Newsday examination of 4,066 petitions to the education commissioner since July 1991, posted on the state agency's website, shows that commissioners have rarely overturned results of school board races.

Sixty-nine of those petitions included allegations of school-board election irregularities or fraud. Of those, commissioners over the years ruled in 15 cases that the petitioners' arguments were sustained or "sustained to the extent indicated."

Such challenges, to be sustained, must show that alleged irregularities affected the outcome of a race or in some way violated the electoral process. Elections also can be overturned if the commissioner is convinced that voting procedures were lax in relation to election law, or that the will of the voters could not be determined because of inaccuracies.

Four years ago, a losing Hempstead board candidate alleged problems during a 2010 election, claiming some bona fide voters were denied the opportunity to cast their ballots and that the polls were closed five minutes early, among other things.

David Steiner, then the education commissioner, cited several technicalities in dismissing the complaint, saying the petition was filed a day late and that it was not personally served to all involved parties.

But in 2009, then-Commissioner Richard P. Mills ruled in favor of a petitioner who said the Westbury school district did not have the proper number of election inspectors in a 2008 vote and that it failed to open absentee ballots in public, among other issues. The election results were annulled.

In 1994, a losing school board candidate in the Harrison Central School District, in Westchester County, argued successfully about a discrepancy in the number of votes registered on voting machines and the number of people who signed the poll list. Thomas Sobol, the education commissioner at the time, found that at least 140 ballots were improperly cast -- enough to change the outcome of the race.

"Accordingly, the election results are set aside," he wrote in his decision. District officials in Harrison said they could not recall what action was taken as a result.

In a separate move involving the Hempstead election, the district has received three subpoenas from the Nassau district attorney's office, sources close to the case have said.

The district also continues to undergo an audit begun last summer by the state comptroller's office.

Graff said the district is cooperating fully with auditors.

"Any information that they have or will request will be made available to them," he said.

With Michael R. Ebert

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