By Larry Gordon
Dr. David Sussman, a veteran member of the Lawrence District School Board, will be reelected next week on May 21 as district residents out here go to the polls. And that is a very good and important thing.
I can say with ease that Dr. Sussman will win because he is running unopposed, which assures victory no matter how you look at the situation.
To understand who Dr. Sussman is and what he has accomplished over the last 18 years on the board, you would have had to live here and witness it with your own eyes. Sussman is not a member of the Orthodox Jewish community that has migrated in with significant numbers over the last 15-plus years. But through those difficult years when there was resistance on the board to the demographic shift, David Sussman’s light shone like a beacon of fairness in the night. And that is because David is an honest and fair-minded person who sees things as they are without the influence of an external, preconceived notion. It is that honesty and integrity that allowed him to stand and speak up for private school families when it was not popular to do so. To Dr. Sussman, we can say at this point, a week prior to the election, “Congratulations upon your victory.”
Now to the matter of the balance of the election which features contested races for the two other seats on the board. A competitive race is usually a good and healthy thing. But that is so when there are important, discernible, and fundamental differences between the various candidates running for a seat on a board, or any elected office for that matter.
That is not the case here with Dov Herman of Woodmere facing off in the race with Tova Plaut, who resides in Cedarhurst. The underside of their race is that they run the risk of splitting the Orthodox Jewish community vote and allowing the unknown candidate, Jesse Lunin-Pack, to eke his way onto the board. I’ve spoken with Lunin-Pack, and he comes across as a decent and upstanding individual, one who could conceivably be an asset on the board.
The same is true in the race between former board member Michael Hatten and the incumbent Nahum Marcus, with the exception that there is no third candidate here that can benefit from a divided community vote. Like Ms. Plaut, Hatten is an education professional, as well as a former member of the board and perhaps more of a natural fit for the dynamics and composition of the board.
So the question is this. What is going to change for the students and families served by the district if one or the other of the candidates is elected? I have met and know all the candidates involved with the exception of Mr. Lunin-Pack whom I have only spoken with twice over the phone. In terms of educational services and serving the students and the community in an efficient and professional way, there are no major differences between the candidates.
There are two matters, though, that need to be dealt with and where this newspaper in particular may have an obligation to play a role. The Dov Herman candidacy was born out of the haphazard and almost irresponsible way in which the board handled the near fiasco of the sale of the Number Six School to a real estate developer that was going to plant a busy medical center there. Had the transaction been passed by the community in the March referendum, that part of Woodmere and nearby Cedarhurst would have found themselves dealing with a serious communal crisis.
Mr. Herman and Joshua Schein, who formed CC5T—Community Coalition of the 5 Towns—feel that they have earned and deserve a voice on the board if for no other reason than to make sure that the future negotiations with any future prospective buyer are handled with greater openness and transparency.
The deal with Simone and the fashion in which the details of the agreement and the company’s payout on the purchase of the property was to be handled seem to have been intentionally kept under wraps because the terms of the deal were not very attractive or favorable to the community.
Too many issues—and especially this one—are handled by the board in the privacy of executive sessions and then voted on in front of the public by referring to the items being voted on by number without the public present being aware of what matter the board is dealing with and how. This technically legal maneuver was hatched back when the open public meetings were rather raucous and discourteous, making it impossible for the board to conduct an open and conventional public session.
But all that has changed, and the meetings are now much more manageable with business being able to be conducted in the open whenever possible. If openness would be restored to these sessions, the need for a divided community and a contested election would probably disappear. This is an area where the 5TJT can be helpful by reporting on the board’s agenda items and the fashion in which they are being handled going forward.
And then there is the matter of personalities. Once again the question is what palpable difference is there between the candidates, and how will policy in the district be impacted if one or the other candidates is elected. All the candidates that I’ve met, Mr. Herman, Mr. Hatten, Ms. Plaut, and Rabbi Marcus, are upstanding, well-meaning individuals who are serious about serving their communities, assuring that tax monies are spent properly and productively for the benefit of all in the district.
So why are they running against one another? As far as the CC5T agenda is concerned, it is a matter of making certain that the Number Six property and other properties that go up for rent or sale over the short term are handled with openness and transparency. Other important issues, like the quality of the education dispensed to the students, the performance of students and teachers, the integrity of the physical structure of old school buildings, special education, use of facilities, busing, and the overall effort to view this unique district—public and private school families—as a unit, has all the candidates on the same page.
The point is that this is neither a personality nor a beauty contest. Board members who are elected by the people have a fiduciary responsibility to work together and assimilate each other’s opinions and positions. To that end, the idea of ignoring board members or holding meetings and making decisions without their knowledge simply because there may be a clash of personalities and styles is not proper nor is it professional. If this board felt that they had a legal obligation to sell the Number Six property to a developer regardless of the damage it might do to the community, then one would think that they certainly have an obligation to step up and make an extra effort to work together, no matter how difficult some may feel that might be.
This is another area in which this and perhaps other media can be helpful—that is not allowing the board to get too comfortable and exercise whatever ill feelings get conjured up when people are forced to work or be together over an extended period of time. We can do that by keeping the light of day shining on the way those meetings that discuss the public good are conducted.
So there are no big or significant policy issues at play in this election. Dov Herman is an outstanding individual who stood up and rallied his community along with Josh Schein and others when they believed something was happening that would alter their everyday lives and those of their families. He would be a great asset and voice of reason on the board.
Tova Plaut is an impressive educator who would also make a valuable contribution to the process of overseeing education policy in the district. She has already been active on local school policy for years, and her election to the board would just be a matter of formalizing her role.
Nahum Marcus is the incumbent, and it is hard to argue with six years of experience on the board and in the trenches helping to legislate policy in a district with very difficult and diverse interests at play.
Michael Hatten is a former board member and an education professional who feels that he still has something of great value in this field to offer the public. How he and Marcus came to face off against one another might just have been a misunderstanding or an extension of some of the ill will that at times hovers over a policy-making board which deals with tough issues.
And Jesse Lunin-Pack of Atlantic Beach seems to be a soft-spoken, well-meaning individual whose heart and priorities are in the right place. Even if his candidacy is not successful on May 21, there certainly can be a role for him somewhere in the process.
And then there is the matter of Dr. David Sussman. After all the other debate and discussion is dealt with and set aside, he is the hero of District 15—the Lawrence school district. That he is running unopposed in this year of contested and competitive elections is a quirk of well-deserved fate. There was a candidate who did intend to challenge Dr. Sussman in this year’s election, however, as his paperwork was submitted at the deadline it was found not to have been completed properly, thereby disqualifying that candidate.
Still, it is vitally important for our community to come out en masse and cast our votes for Dr. Sussman as a matter of hakaras hatov, of reciprocating for a good deed and the good work he has done on our behalf, sometimes under very challenging circumstances. It is additionally important to come out to vote as a way of demonstrating the community’s interest in how our education tax dollars are allocated. The people we elect to deal with these matters sacrifice a great deal all year long. It is important that we spend just a few minutes on this one day—May 21—to show that we appreciate their efforts on our behalf. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.