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Editorial: Don't ease up on Hempstead school board

Diane Goins, with clipboard to the left, and

Diane Goins, with clipboard to the left, and Victoria Culbreath, holding sign, along with a coalition of Hempstead Village community organizations rally to deliver a copy of a petition with about 1,000 community members signatures to the school board. (Oct. 11, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A shuffling of the deck has taken place in Hempstead, where Betty Cross has been dethroned as school board president. Her replacement, Lamont Johnson, a former police officer, is saying all the right things in terms of what this troubled district needs.

But this change should not be a reason to ease up on investigations of the district being conducted by the state Education Department, the Nassau County district attorney and the state comptroller. The many troubling allegations swirling about Hempstead do not dissipate simply because Johnson and the embattled Cross have swapped chairs.

Johnson's ascendancy might prove beneficial to Hempstead and its students. Unfortunately, Cross is still on the board and there is reason to be concerned about his independence from her. It was Cross who convinced Johnson to run last year, and he gave her a rousing public endorsement before the tumultuous May 20 election now tainted by claims that Cross' supporters committed absentee ballot fraud. And Johnson has voted virtually in lockstep with Cross, especially on the board's more contentious high-profile decisions, according to minutes posted on the district's website -- at least until the last few weeks. Has he seen the light? Or felt the heat?

There has been no shortage of fiery forewarnings. The last two weeks alone offer fresh evidence of the board's dysfunction and of dubious actions by district academic personnel.

The most recent eyebrow-raiser was the district's graduation ceremony, where 224 seniors received diplomas; three weeks earlier, only 158 were certified to graduate. High school principal Reginald Stroughn said the number receiving diplomas equates to a graduation rate of close to 50 percent. The state must verify that figure, but it's so starkly different from the previous two years' marks of 35.5 and 38 percent to be simply not credible. Plus, there are concerns about how this spring's Regents exams were given.

There's more. One school board meeting two weeks ago was held without giving proper notice -- by no means a first. At that meeting, the board voted to rescind an action taken four days earlier to investigate the conduct of superintendent Susan Johnson. At least part of the vote was not public; when people waiting outside the room while the board met in executive session were finally let in, the vote was underway. Cross, refused to reveal the subject of the vote, referring questions to the board secretary as she left.

These kinds of shenanigans cannot continue. Hempstead faces serious academic challenges; incompetence and corruption are obstacles to solving them.

The most recent goings-on have ratcheted up the pressure on state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who needs to swiftly complete his investigation into whether to void the election and remove Cross, and on state education officials who also are examining the questionable operations of the board and district. Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice also is investigating the election and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is auditing Hempstead's finances.

Johnson says he wants change and vows to increase transparency and be inclusive. That's a good start. But tough action from those probing the district would be even better.