By Larry Gordon
Here come the elections for positions on the Lawrence (District 15) Board of Education, scheduled for late May. The current board has revolutionized the funding relationship between the taxpayers and the parents and students, in this district where the majority of students attend private schools—in this case, yeshivas. Until just a few years ago, it was essentially accepted that students who attend private schools deserve less than those who attend the district’s public schools.
Since 2000, when the community began to take note of the fact that they were paying high education taxes as part of their property assessments, but getting short shrift on services from the district, the community has become active and has sought seats on the education board.
The effort has been resoundingly successful on multiple levels. Yeshiva students in the district are now getting their fair share of services beyond what was the bare minimum. The greatest improvement is probably in the area of special education, where now parents of students requiring services no longer have to fight or sue to get their children the education plan that they need and are entitled to.
All this has been accomplished by a unified group of seven men who determinedly made it their priority to not just effectuate change but to make things right for taxpayers. Today the group is led by Dr. Asher Mansdorf, who serves as president of the board. Mansdorf has not just led the charge to institute vital change, but has made it his main concern that the way education is dispensed in this district and the fashion in which tens of millions of dollars are spent will benefit all the children of the district—public school and private school students alike.
But now there is fear of a split in the Orthodox community over the traumatic impact and aftermath of the battle over the sale of the Number Six School in Woodmere, which thankfully was defeated in a referendum by voters just five weeks ago. The struggle to defeat the sale of the property in Woodmere was the forerunner to the creation of the Community Coalition of the 5 Towns. Following their 2–1 victory at the polls, they have vowed to remain politically active on a full range of community issues, with a special focus on education.
To that end, representatives of the group have met with and are meeting with political officials including a representative of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The group was stung by what seemed on the surface anyway, the school board’s willingness to turn Woodmere upside down by making way for a developer to bring a medical center to the property.
“We have worked with great focus and diligence over all these years,” Dr. Mansdorf said this week, “in order to build a board and a system that we currently have. A split now could change a lot of very important things very dramatically.”
How such a split would play itself out is rather simple. This year, three board members are up for reelection: Rabbi Nahum Marcus, Dr. Solomon Blisko, and Dr. David Sussman. All three have done outstanding and even groundbreaking work in strengthening education in the district. At this point, prior to this week’s deadline, we understand that the CC5T candidate, Dov Herman, is planning to file paperwork to oppose Dr. Blisko, and former board member Michael Hatten is planning on running against Mr. Marcus.
“We believe that our community should be united and that the Community Coalition of the Five Towns (CC5T) should have a seat at the table,” said Joshua Schein, coalition president. “Those ideas are not mutually exclusive. Unity, however, should not be used as an excuse for excluding CC5T,” Schein said. “CC5T has proven to be a persuasive, positive, and unifying influence in our community.”
The deadline for filing petitions to run is April 22, with the election taking place one month later. This is, of course, a democratic process, and anyone who believes they can make an important contribution to the process has a right to run. “That’s fine,” says Dr. Mansdorf, “and we need good people to serve, but we also have to understand that we are subjecting our community to a vulnerability that can impact all community residents across the board.” It should be noted that in spite of this declaration, Dr. Mansdorf is endorsing Michael Hatten’s run.
What troubles Mansdorf about this emerging process is that just about all district residents are pleased with the board’s performance. The board has reined in spending and kept what was once an annually ballooning budget stable over many years. Thus there have been only minimal property tax increases associated with education expenditures.
Mansdorf feels that the board should be judged by their overall exemplary performance over the years and not entirely on what was almost a fiasco with the near sale of the Number Six school to Simone Development.
Schein points out that the near sale had many flaws including “a grossly one-sided contract favoring Simone and a secrecy provision preventing the board from disclosing the contract details to the very public that had to vote on it.” Schein also explains that the planned pre-Pesach election date, when the contract called for mid-April, was also highly questionable, as was the limited polls and voting hours, understaffed polling sites, insufficient voting machines, and a district clerk who made it almost impossible to obtain absentee ballots or voting information.
As far as the CC5T group is concerned, they feel that they have earned a seat at the table and that their candidate, Mr. Herman, is electable to the school board with a mandate to oversee the interests of their constituency that represents a large swatch of the district. Mansdorf says that may be good and even right, but he is concerned about a possible split in the electorate, which could open the way for a third candidate who does not have the best interests of the entire district on his or her agenda.
It is important to note that all this has been playing out under the careful observation of the long-unhappy public-school parent leadership that once controlled the majority of the school board with a set-in-stone policy to limit aid to yeshivas and yeshiva students. This group has been waiting on the sidelines for the opportunity that might present itself if and when there was ever a split within the community—as may be the case this year.
So where do we go from here? There is a great deal of back and forth taking place behind the scenes, and we are in touch with all the players and candidates and will report on these matters and the upcoming election as they occur. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.