As part of the continuing efforts to increase awareness, support and advocacy for our local public school system, the Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc. (SHAI) and Great Neck Chinese Association (GNCA) successfully collaborated and held a bond presentation and meet-the-candidates event on Monday, April 24. During this well-attended event at the Great Neck Public Library, Dr. Teresa Prendergast, superintendent of the Great Neck Public Schools (GNPS), presented the revised budget and bond referendum.
Then, the six candidates running for the two open Board of Education (BOE) seats at the time were introduced. During a question-and-answer session, the public was invited to learn more about each candidate’s qualifications andpositions regarding our local schools and their operations. Ilya Aronovich and Rebecca Sassouni were running for Susan Healy’s seat, and Nikolas Kron and Jeffrey Shi are running for Larry Gross’s seat. Aronovich, Michael Golden and Grant Toch have since withdrawn from the race.
As a follow up to this event, GNCA and SHAI have asked each of the four remaining candidates five questions regarding the issues and challenges facing our school system so that the public has an informed understanding of the issues and candidates when going to the polls on Tuesday, May 16. The GNCA and SHAI boards reiterate their commitment to education and support of our local GNPS, and urge all members of the community to exercise their legal right and vote.
Q: In a period of limited resources, how would you enlist support for public school spending from private school parents, parents with no children in the district and the elderly? How can the school board prove itself accountable to those citizens?
Ilya Aronovich: I am an entrepreneur experienced in getting business projects funded and I have run sophisticated organizations. While GNPS need more funds for capital improvements, this can be accomplished without substantially burdening taxpayers. Numerous colleges and universities get 10 to 30 percent of their budgets from donations from graduates, philanthropists and businesses. This comes in the form of endowment-investment income and direct donations. Universities, museums and research foundations put part of their funds into secure investments achieving long-term, steady returns. To provide everything we need to continually improve student performance and experience while not overburdening Great Neck taxpayers, I will push to make a place for donations at GNPS, which will improve the short- and long-term fiscal stability of the district. Countless GNPS graduates are, thank G-d, currently earning 6 and 7-digit incomes. If ever approached, many would not hesitate to generously donate. Many would be thrilled and find great value at the opportunity to name a classroom, gymnasium, auditorium or soccer field of their alma mater. I will also seek financial support from philanthropists and businesses.
Nikolas Kron: Since 1814, the GNPS have been the bedrock of the Great Neck community and families still move to GN for our schools. Spending on public education is essential to maintaining a leading district. Everyone in GN knows this, including the private school families and empty nesters. What makes anyone support an institution that they don’t use? Pride. If the community sees GNPS as the umbrella body, administering public education and working seamlessly with the private schools—guiding, sharing resources where appropriate and collaborating on shared projects for the benefit of all children, it will engender more support and pride than our current system of “us against them.”
Community understanding and interaction is developed through awareness and accountability. Regular town hall meetings and community outreach, along with a FAQ board, will go a long way to keeping GN informed and will provide a base for greater accountability. GN needs to know how the GNPS are succeeding. This comes through transparency and highlighting our successes and failures. A district website that makes the public record available to everyone, with the facts and figures, will reduce mistrust of proposed spending and budget changes. When someone believes that the South building roofs are 26,000 square feet but are in fact 345,000 square feet, it makes a big difference to the way they view the proposed cost of roof repairs. Information is power and it should not be hoarded as that only festers mistrust.
Rebecca Sassouni: Although this year, after the failure of the February Bond Referendum, there exists a heightened sense of scrutiny regarding buy-in from the community, I do believe it important to contextualize the issue raised: First, while resources are indeed limited, they are also shared. That is, private and public school families, as well as empty nesters, all directly benefit from the GNPS budget’s shared resources. The GNPS budget supports plentiful adult education offerings, the Social Center at Grace Avenue, private school transportation, special education, textbooks and nursing services, and pre-K through 12th-grade education for all public school students. Given that our resources are shared, and that individuals—not groups—vote, it is a little simplistic to say any one or two groups defeated the February Bond Referendum.
Still, we have to be realistic. Our shared communal resources are limited, not only by a tax cap but by property owners’ own limited resources. Many in Great Neck have incomes that are fixed, or diminishing, and they feel burdened by their tax obligations. Though the tax levy is based on flawed assessment formulas from Nassau County, people can’t vote on the assessment system. Rather, their franchise gets exercised—yay or nay—on an annual operating budget.
As a member of the BOE, I will be part of the outreach and communication efforts to engage and balance the concerns of all the stakeholders in Great Neck. I am well-prepared to do this delicate outreach to private school and empty-nester stakeholders in our community, just as I will do in-reach to public school parents as a parent of currently enrolled students.
Since I have lived in Great Neck for more than 20 years, been continuously involved in the public schools for more than 15, held longstanding leadership roles in communal and religious-affiliate organizations (such as SHAI, Temple Israel of Great Neck and co-steering Shabbat Project 2014), am bilingual and able to communicate well in Farsi, I believe I can engage with multiple stakeholder groups effectively. Moreover, as a first-generation American child of immigrants, I identify with the immigrant experiences of many of our residents and students; after all, the United States is a nation of immigrants. My roles in UPTC and SHAI will enable me to draw upon my strong bonds with my friends of multiple ethnicities and religions, including in the GNCA.
Jeff Shi: Our founding father Thomas Jefferson created the first public school system in America 200 years ago. Since that time, public schools have become the bedrock of our suburban communities across the nation. A strong public education system makes a strong state and a strong nation, and good public schools make a better and more attractive community. Great Neck is a living example of how a strong public education system can produce such a great community.
In my view, building a better public school system is not only for the benefit of the families who send their children to public schools. It is also for the common good of all Great Neck residents. A robust public school system stimulates local economic growth and helps to improve our property values.
I don’t think our private school parents, parents with no children in the district or our senior citizens are fundamentally at odds with providing support for our public schools. After all, our public education system also supports our children who go to private schools by providing bus transportation, books and special education. And I’m sure many Great Neck senior citizens have children who graduated from and who took pride in our finest public schools.
The concern, as I see it, is how the board can responsibly spend the funds in building a stronger public education system in Great Neck that will, in the long run, benefit the entire community. If I’m elected, my fellow citizens can be assured that this will be my mission. Before I’m a member of the school board, I first and foremost consider myself a Great Neck citizen. Building a better Great Neck is my ultimate goal, and building a better public education system is my way of getting there. If I’m elected, I will work with my fellow board members to take full fiscal responsibility and remain accountable to all our constituencies at all times.
Q: Regardless of your position on the upcoming Bond Referendum, what would you do as a board member if it failed?
Aronovich: To be fiscally responsible to our taxpayers, I will push for getting second, third and fourth opinions from architects, engineers and contractors on how to implement the maintenance of aging GNPS infrastructure and control costs of necessary expansions at GNPS.
I believe that transparency means sharing all the detailed opinions with the public online and otherwise.
Kron: The Bond Referendum must succeed to empower our schools—we can’t give up. If the bond fails, we have failed to convince the community of its need. I would organize town-hall meetings to listen and answer questions. I would meet with community leaders, have parlor meetings and open forums to discuss and educate GN of the need for the bond. The proposed bond is fair and is sized appropriately, therefore we need to know why it is not being passed. It may be that misinformation is the only impediment. A better-informed GN will pass the bond and with my deep and broad community ties, I believe that I am best placed to facilitate those conversations.
Sassouni: Should the public elect me, but reject the Bond Referendum, I would do what I did as one of only three parent members on the Citizens Advisory Committee to the BOE: regroup and go back to the drawing board. I would debrief the election with as many stakeholder groups as humanly possible and to try to ascertain what informed the yes and no votes. After gathering the data, I would participate in a triage-type discussion to identify which projects are absolutely essential for the safety of every adult and child who enters district properties to minimize likelihoods of harm and liability.
I would commit, again, to bringing another Bond Referendum to the community. Those who say the bond projects should be paid out of the operating budget must not realize how much that drain on the budget would negatively impact children’s instruction. The bond also has the advantage of obtaining borrowing at historically low interest rates, and ensuring that Great Neck maintains its stellar Aaa bond rating. This rating reflects Great Neck’s credit rating, our ability to repay debt. The rating correlates not only to the GNPS’s reputation, but to the value of all residential and commercial properties on this peninsula, a property portfolio valued at well more than $10 billion. Securing the school district’s physical plants, as well as this Aaa rating for our GNPS portfolio and everyone’s commercial and residential properties, will be a top priority.
Shi: There are a number of things I would do. First, I would find out why it failed and listen to the people who voted against it. We need to understand the concerns and the problems perceived by people with the referendum so we can address each one of them accordingly.
Second, since the bond referendum primarily deals with infrastructure projects, I would propose to create an Infrastructure Committee in addition to the existing Citizen’s Committee and Finance Committee. We would bring in the best minds in the construction and engineering businesses in our community to provide a referendum with improved efficiency and cost effectiveness.
We would then reach out to the community at large to discuss our approaches and address the concerns, and have another vote on the referendum.
In the meanwhile, I would take a very close look at our current budget and other potential funding sources for at least some of the projects that are long overdue. They cannot wait any longer. We have to remember that we are doing this for our children, the future of this great nation. The future can’t wait.
Q: Where would you like to see the Great Neck School system in five years?
Aronovich: I would like to see some significant portion of the school budget supplied from donated funds and endowment investments. This will open a whole new realm of possibilities at GNPS.
Kron: There is no reason that GN cannot be the top public school district in the country. We must challenge all our children to reach for the stars and provide them the scaffolding and support to get there. We must continue to nurture our most vulnerable children through world-class special-education programs and integration in the classroom. We must engender a winning attitude throughout the district—APs, science olympiads, music/NYSSMA, DECA and sports to name a few. Financially, we should have the same top rating as we do today and all of this should be possible without raising our tax rates or piercing the tax cap. There is a lot of work ahead, but GNPS are up for the challenge.
Sassouni: In 2022, I expect to see GNPS still at the top of national and state rankings, supporting more than 8,000 students (including public and private schools) with our annual operating budget, with nearly 100 percent of graduates advancing to higher education. I hope, but am concerned, that in 2022, GNPS will continue to deliver pre-K, adult education, transportation and special-education services, relatively low teacher-to-student ratios and multiple APs courses, clubs and enrichments at the level to which residents in Great Neck are currently accustomed. The community’s votes on May 16 will be a bellwether on the viability of these hopes for 2022.
Shi: I would like to see an even stronger Great Neck school system that can better prepare our children to compete on the world stage. To get there, I see the need to innovate upon the depth and breadth of our curriculum under the guidance of Dr. Prendergast, who was hired for her expertise on curriculum development. Through the improved curriculum, we need to help our children learn about and understand the world outside Great Neck and outside the United States.
I would also like to see a more effective Great Neck school system for all Great Neck children. We need to design a more elastic curriculum where not only the best students will succeed but all students can succeed. All Great Neck children must be able to live up to their potential and live a meaningful life, no matter where they choose to live after they leave our schools.
Q: Do you believe that the GN school system is running efficiently? If not, how would you address that?
Aronovich: While the answer is “yes,” there is always room for improvement. The district is huge and so there are probably multiple hidden inefficiencies and less than ideal use of resources. In addition to receiving second and third opinions when necessary, to assure efficiency in the use of taxpayer funds, I would form committees to look into efficiency improvement and solicit input from the successful graduates. I would also solicit lots of input on curriculum enhancements and the use of innovative ways to retain and hire the best educators. I would do this all to improve student critical thinking, performance and experience.
Kron: We are one of the top districts in New York and ranked nationally so, yes, our district is running efficiently. Sometimes, we can’t see our successes staring us in the face. I believe that we need to market ourselves better. I have attended every BOE meeting for the past eight months and the Superintendent Reports really show the strength of our district. Let’s make them, along with the meeting minutes, available online for the whole community to review. However, such information alone is not sufficient to provide the transparency that the community deserves. Most people don’t have time to wade through thousands of pages of minutes. The information should be cataloged and summarized for easy digestion. I would create a dashboard that visualizes the health of our district. It could provide information on enrollment and participation in state-mandated exams. It will show our spending progress throughout the year and provide updates on the progress of the critical repairs and building enhancements. This will be our district’s report card and it will be visible to all.
Sassouni: To the extent that the GNPS has consistently high rankings in state and national measures, to the extent that our students and faculty are safe in buildings on a day-to-day level, yes, our schools run efficiently.
As ever, there will be tweaks to be made over time to maintain and, hopefully, improve efficiencies. Our administration continues to prioritize resourceful ways to run efficiently, economize and generate revenue. Perhaps the best way for a BOE member to assess where any improvements and tweaks need be made is to be present and to ask lots of questions about efficiencies. I pledge to visit the different schools in Great Neck, to talk with administrators, teachers, students, parents and members of the Great Neck community who are unaffiliated with the public schools. It is only by being present, engaging in conversation and continually seeking out best practices that we can ensure continued success and efficiencies.
Shi: I don’t think our current school system is running inefficiently, but there is certainly room to improve our efficiency. Below are a few examples for improvement.
First, we can improve communication efficiency. I see the need to open more communication channels to our parents so they can be apprised in a timely way about issues facing our schools.
Second, we can create new revenue streams for the schools by providing after-school enrichment programs at elementary and middle schools. Providing such programs will not only help our children’s academic advancement, but also solve many working parents’ after-school care problems.
Third, we can also make more-efficient use of our public education system by providing more-targeted educational programs to the adults and senior citizens of the Great Neck community, such as technology training and continuing-education programs. After all, the Great Neck public education system, as the hub of our community, serves not only our children, but all who want to learn.
Q: How do you intend to build support and consensus among the various stakeholders within the school district?
Aronovich: The failure of the previous bond proposal demonstrated and, on some level, created divisiveness in our community. Being in business and having substantial organizational experience, I have functioned as a bridge-maker numerous times. I will dedicate myself to fostering a greater sense of respect for one another in Great Neck by organizing events and spreading the message of inclusion rather than the recent divisiveness pervading our community. An effective way that consensus and community-wide support can be achieved is through inclusion. In this regard, public school facilities and resources should be open to all residents of the community including to those with children in private schools. Additionally, we should not engage in us-versus-them thinking, but look to understand each other’s backgrounds, goals and priorities. Finally, not overburdening taxpayers in the way I suggest in previous answers will go far in building community-wide support.
Kron: Listen, communicate and brainstorm together. With dialogue, education and information, we will build consensus throughout the community and ultimately build a stronger GN. All we need are open-minded people to discuss the issues.
Sassouni: Consensus-building is a skill I consistently draw upon as a mother, a spouse, an attorney, a facilitator, a community activist, a member of the Citizens: Advisory Committee to the BOE, a perennial Shared Decision Making Committee chairperson, an officer of UPTC, SHAI and a local synagogue. As a threshold issue, consensus requires having the appropriate stakeholders engaged in the conversation, not omitted. Second, once stakeholders are engaged, consensus requires laying the groundwork for trust and ongoing relationship, listening and, where appropriate, confidentiality. Lastly, consensus requires responsiveness, follow-up reporting and accountability so that stakeholders who are engaged are apprised of where their participation led, and that their participation was not in vain. My familiarity with this process will inform my board service, whether in relation to my fellow board members, our faculty, our parents, our students and the broadest community of Great Neck residents.
Shi: The key stakeholders of our public school system include students, parents, teachers and school administrators. At first glance, these stakeholders’ interests may not be completely aligned. However, it is undeniable that they share a fundamental common interest—better education for the students. We need to build support and consensus around this fundamental concern.
In order to bring the various stakeholders close together, we will also need to carefully listen to their concerns and reflect on the differences of their interests. We can improve the communication channels with the various stakeholders, for example, by effectively using social media. We can also host more frequent town-hall style meetings in the evenings with the various stakeholders.
Ultimately, we need to find a balance when addressing the different concerns of the various stakeholders. I’m confident that if every one of us keeps the ultimate objective of our public education system in mind, we will be able to bring everybody on board to make GNPS better and stronger.