The candidates running for open seats on the Great Neck Board of Education introduced themselves to the community and answered questions for more than two hours on Monday, April 24. The event, jointly sponsored by Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc. (SHAI) and Great Neck Chinese Association (GNCA), was held in the new community room of the Great Neck Library from 7 to 10 p.m. More than 250 audience members filled chairs, lined the walls and took seats on the floor as moderators from SHAI and GNCA kept the program on schedule.
School Superintendent Dr. Teresa Prendergast presented a thorough overview of the school budget and bond referendum. She explained the $220-million budget with a “1.26 percent increase below the tax cap” and stressed Great Neck’s long tradition of high-academic achievement and fiscal management, which includes a “AAA bond rating.” She noted that Great Neck is a “destination community” due to its schools, which are the “jewels of the community.”
She said that 98 percent of students receive Regents diplomas and 98 percent go on to higher education. According to Newsweek, Great Neck South is #1 in the state and North is #6.
Prendergast acknowledged that the board was always looking for ways to improve the education of the next generation of learners. She pointed out that only 6 percent of the budget is spent on administrative costs and more than 80 percent goes to programming. Among other things, the revised bond includes a greenhouse, STEAM lab, North High robotics team, new technology, early-morning enrichment and early-morning drop-off for working parents. The E.M. Baker School will get a new, expanded auditorium. New extracurricular activities are planned, along with a better website to improve communication between the school and parents and funds are allocated to improve each of the 18 buildings in the district.
In the new bond, $78 million is allocated for new projects, $68 million of which will be financed by the bond and $9.5 million will come from reserves in the budget. She explained that the district’s 18 buildings with more than 1.35 million square feet of space have an average age of 77 years. Due to resistance from the community, the original bond was trimmed by $17.5 million.
“We heard you,” said Prendergast. “We know that you wanted a less-expensive bond.” The improvements will take up to five years to complete and as much as $6 million will be reimbursed from New York State. “It is important to note that public construction costs at least 30 percent more than private costs, due to minimum-wage requirements, insurance requirements, regulations regarding the building of schools and more stringent building codes.”
Also mentioned was that based on assessed home value, school taxes are much lower than other top Long Island districts, such as Syosset and Roslyn.
All six candidates running for trustee were in attendance. The two candidates running for the seat of Susan Healy are Ilya Aronovich and Rebecca Sassouni. At the time of the meeting, the four candidates running for Larry Gross’s seat were Michael Golden, Nikolas Kron, Jeffrey Shi and Grant Toch. Golden and Toch have since withdrawn.
Each candidate had the opportunity to present an opening statement, and printed bios were made available to the audience, showing that the candidates are a well-educated group with varying records of service in the community. Five of the candidates have children who currently attend or graduated from Great Neck Public Schools (GNPS), though the youngest of Kron’s four children currently attends North Shore Hebrew Academy and Ilya Aronovich’s four children attend Silverstein Hebrew Academy, also a private school.
The candidates agreed that the district has an excellent academic standing and fiscal management, and that it was important for the school budget to pass.
One major point of disagreement was expressed by Aronovich, the only candidate who refused to state whether he was in support of the bond referendum. The other five candidates were unequivocally in favor of the bond, and acknowledged the need to invest in the community and the future of the school district. Aronovich said that the bond had created dissension and controversy and that he would abstain from stating a position. As for the budget, he said he believed that the budget would pass and should be supported by the community.
Other main differences among the candidates were their perspectives on the community and the needs of students, along with their own experience.
In his opening statement and throughout the evening, Toch stressed his familiarity with finance and complex budgets as a financial analyst. He has extensive experience working with the current board since 2009, and serves on the Finance Advisory committee. He has served as a member and chairman of the United Parent-Teacher Council (UPTC) Budget Committee, and other school volunteer positions. His three children, ages 6, 8 and 12, attend GNPS.
Kron previously ran for the school board and lost the December race, but remains very involved in the district. He is a management consultant and real estate investor who has been active in public school fundraising, Shared Decision Making and UPTC. He said that his strengths include being concise, his familiarity with technology and fiscal conservatism. He stated that rumors indicated that he was opposed to the budget and bond, but that he is 100 percent aligned with the public school and the needs of its students.
Golden, a retired teacher with more than three decades of service in Great Neck and a parent of children who attended public schools, started out teaching in New York City schools and has maintained a passion for education. He stressed his extensive teaching background and desire to serve the community by joining the Board of Education. He said he believed there was too much mandatory testing in the classrooms which wasted time and resources and, if elected, he would advocate for less testing in the interest of the students.
Sassouni, an attorney and the mother of four children who attend or have graduated GNPS, expressed her thanks to SHAI and GNCA. Sassouni, an officer of SHAI noted that the two cultural organizations that hosted the event are “an excellent model of community building.” She called for all of the groups in Great Neck to work together, as neighbors. “We live here, this is our home…a glorious tapestry of micro communities,” she said.
Sassouni has an extensive record of service to the school district, both North and South, including her role as one of three parents in the Citizens Advisory Committee, the chairperson of the UPTC Legislative Committee and cochair of Shared Decision Making.
Shi, who moved to Great Neck in 2013 and has one daughter in public school, has an engineering degree and works for the City of New York. His strengths are finance and technology, and he manages large computer systems in support of business operations. He was extremely vocal in his support of the school district, the budget and the bond, and stressed the need for improved communication with the school district to help busy parents. He vowed to promote academic excellence, transparency and fiscal responsibility.
Aronovich, who attended public school, sends his four children to private school and serves on the board of the Silverstein Hebrew Academy. When asked about potential conflicts of interest if elected, Aronovich stated that he would recuse himself from any matter involving Silverstein. He emphasized the need to bridge gaps in the community, to reach out and work together. His goal is to preserve resources to enhance the welfare of students, to “monetize assets owned by the school district and to increase revenue.”
The candidates agreed that the board should seek out opportunities to increase revenue by offering enrichment courses and using district buildings to generate income on weekends and summers. Toch said that he would seek out ways to develop public and private partnerships.
Sassouni acknowledged the need for fiscal responsibility, but warned that we should focus on what matters most: the qualitative benefit to students, as well as the quantitative savings, saying, “These votes on a bond referendum, an annual operating budget and seats on the Board of Education are about what Great Neck stands for. They are value propositions, not only about money, but how our community defines ourself. It’s not just about dollars. It’s about our future and about what is important about living in Great Neck. That’s what you vote on.”