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Hempstead schools to hold special election in contested vote on Oct. 28

Betty Cross counts votes as they are read

Betty Cross counts votes as they are read aloud during a special meeting at ABGS Middle School in Hempstead, May 21, 2014. Credit: Jeremy Bales

The Hempstead school district will hold a special election Oct. 28 to fill a board seat left vacant by longtime trustee Betty Cross, who was removed last month by state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. as he investigated claims of voter fraud.

The election will be held at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., officials said. Candidates have until Sept. 29 to register; the term expires June 30.

Maribel Touré, who challenged Cross' election, has pledged to run again and was pleased with the date selected.

"We have to continue with the momentum," Touré said Monday. "It's going to be very hard to convince the people to come out and vote again. It will be very tiring, but it is worth it. If this is what it takes for change to come, we have to do it."

Cross' attorney, John Ryan, said he does not yet know if his client will join the race, adding that she is "still evaluating her options."

While the district plans for the new vote, its teachers are scrambling to manage overcrowded classrooms, local union leader Elias Mestizo said. Some math, social studies, science, language arts and other courses in the seventh and eighth grades have up to 50 students, he said.

Mestizo warned the district during the 2013-14 school year that class sizes would swell, he said, but nothing was done.

"It becomes very tough to teach," he said. "You cannot reach every student in the classroom as much as you would like to."

Board president Lamont Johnson said Mestizo never contacted him about the problem and the two men argued the issue in the public portion of the meeting at the Hempstead High School auditorium.

"The influx was a surprise to everybody," the board president said earlier in the day.

The district's enrollment increased from 7,088 at the end of the last school year to nearly 8,200 this week, officials said. The school system is running out of space and is seeking to rent other buildings and to hire additional staff to accommodate the new students.

Mestizo, in a letter to union members, also cited scheduling problems that might make it difficult for some students to meet core requirements. Many high schoolers left campus for several hours on the first day of school as the district tried to reconfigure their classes.

As for the election, it's been in dispute for months.

Seven candidates vied for two at-large seats in the May 20 vote. Ricky Cooke and Touré were declared winners the night of the election, with Cooke getting 802 votes and Touré beating Cross 712 to 691. The next day, when scores of disputed absentee ballots were counted in a chaotic emergency meeting, Cross went ahead of Touré by six votes, reaching 719.

Touré and her attorney, Frederick K. Brewington of Hempstead, filed a petition with the state in June, claiming election fraud, coercion and abuse of the absentee balloting process.

King in his August decision chided the district for not keeping a list of absentee voters available to the public on election day, saying the lapse "threatened the integrity of the election."

Cooke's election was not contested.

The Rev. Cornelius Watson, 62, a Hempstead resident for more than 40 years, told the board he felt disenfranchised as a voter.

He supported Cross and was frustrated his vote didn't count. He took issue with King throwing out only Cross' election. "Either the whole tree is poisoned or none of it is," Watson said.

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