Hempstead High School on Aug. 22, 2013.

Hempstead High School on Aug. 22, 2013. Credit: Barry Sloan

The state education commissioner has barred Betty Cross from continuing to serve on the Hempstead school board while he investigates allegations that she and her supporters committed voter fraud in May's school board election.

That's a good first step, and an indication that Commissioner John B. King Jr. is troubled by the accusations detailed in a petition filed by losing board candidate Maribel Touré and other district residents protesting the election results. Such an action -- which commissioners rarely take -- requires that the petitioner shows he or she is likely to succeed on the merits of the case.

King must decide whether the claims of absentee ballot abuse and voter intimidation are valid. If the answer is yes, he should not take the tack typically followed by his predecessors and simply void the entire election. That would not be fair to top vote-getter Rickey Cooke, who won one of the two open seats by a large margin and whose results have not been questioned by anyone.

King seems to agree. His order preventing the seating of Cross barred the board only from declaring her the winner over Touré. Cooke wasn't mentioned

Nor would voiding the election be fair to district residents. Hempstead has suffered profoundly from a lack of leadership; ordering a new election would leave the board with only four members for the time it takes to conduct a new election. This would come amid unprecedented clamor in the district for new beginnings and change.

King has broad powers under state education law to impose remedies. If he substantiates the allegations in the petition, King should void the absentee ballots in question. That would drop Cross to third and give the seat to Touré, Cooke's running mate, who seemed to have won on election night.

King could let the clock run until May, then declare the matter moot. The seat has one year left on its term; the winner has to run again in May. Commissioners are notorious for taking time on these kinds of cases. That way King keeps Cross off the board but doesn't have to decide the fraud case. That would be a big mistake and send the wrong message. He should make a ruling on what are, after all, shocking allegations of corruption. If Cross and company are guilty, bring to a formal end her long reign of dysfunction and incompetence. That also would give residents who are demanding reform a full complement on the board.

Meanwhile, Cooke and his colleagues have a district to run. New president Lamont Johnson, in his second year on the board, is saying all the right things so far. He wants to give the community more access to the board, and make its decisions understandable by holding open scheduled meetings and working with anyone who wants to help. He plans to hold administrators accountable for student progress and, yes, pledges his independence from Cross.

He also has some good ideas -- including uniforms for students through eighth grade, a dress code for the high school, and a Safe Path program in which Hempstead would help children scared or bullied by racial tension or gang violence get to school and home safely. Feeling secure is critical for both students and parents.

The change in style and substance is welcome. Johnson is doing his part. Now King must do his.