By Larry Gordon
The highest praise one can award an elected official on any level is that when they come up for reelection there is no competition and they run unopposed. That has been the case here in the Lawrence School District over the last few election cycles. Prior to that point, these elections used to be highly contested, with the sides split down the middle over priorities relating to a $90 million-plus annual school budget.
The constant divide had been between those with a public-school orientation and those with sensitivity to the fact that a large segment of the district’s children were attending yeshivas. For far too many years, the accepted mindset was that this was a public school district and except for mandated services like books and busing and some minimal special-education services, private-school parents had no right or say in setting the district agenda.
As the public-school population shrank, oversized public-school building facilities became expendable and were put up for sale. The Number One school on Central Avenue in Lawrence was sold a few years ago for close to $30 million. Construction of a large and attractive luxury apartment complex is just being completed at that location. The influx of cash was quite a bonanza for the school-district coffers.
Then just a few months ago, the Number Six School fiasco burst onto the scene. The district was on somewhat of an economic roll. The Six School was closed several years ago due to underuse (as is the case with two additional school buildings in the district that may be go up for sale or rent over the next year) and the great expense of operating the building. How to dispose of the building and create additional significant revenue for the district became a point of debate and contention. Several different non-profit groups were vying for the property. The district management team felt that the property was undervalued and that if marketed properly could result in a greater amount of income that would help to keep property taxes under control.
They awarded the contract for the property to the highest bidder—Simone Development—for $12.5 million. A debacle was in the making and a monster was created, as many living nearby thought that the new entity would create colossal traffic jams as well as overall congestion and danger that would change the face of a quiet and pristine neighborhood. The school people said that they were advised that the law demands that they accept the highest bid. Some thought otherwise. A new group, Community Coalition for the 5 Towns, was created and successfully opposed the sale, campaigning and winning a district-wide referendum by a ratio of 2–1.
And now that group says that the effort and the fact that over 4,200 people came out to vote to reject the sale means that the group has earned a seat on the school board in the upcoming May 21 election. The only problem is that there are three seats up for election and as of today there are five (or maybe six) candidates. Four of the group are from within the Orthodox or yeshiva community. This is causing a split where in the past there was mostly consensus and unity.
It is important to note that throughout this evolving process, community leaders have been involved in constant discussions with both sides in an attempt to reach some kind of agreement and maintain unity. The hope is that a deal that everyone can live with is struck at some point. It may have already been done as this paper is on the press; there is, however, no indication of that now.
Of course this competitive election is much different than those of just a half dozen or so years ago, when it was not just an election but actually a tug-of-war over control and economic priorities in the district. At this juncture, the so-called Orthodox-dominated board has demonstrated extraordinary and even-handed management skills that translated its campaign rhetoric of years ago about serving all the children of the district into an effective and successful reality. The board has been widely praised by all elements of the district for simultaneously keeping educational costs down while vastly improving the quality of education. That is, until the Number Six School situation made its appearance.
So now, in case you are keeping score, CC5T leader Dov Herman is running against Tova Plaut and Jesse Lunin-Pack. Conventional wisdom says that the two Orthodox community candidates will split the vote, allowing Mr. Lunin-Pack, a resident of Atlantic Beach, to take a seat on the board. This, of course, depends on the extent the Atlantic Beach population will be involved in the election as well as the vigor or lack thereof with which this election will be viewed in our Five Towns communities.
The dynamics of the electorate here and the layout and design of the district are the kind that begs for this kind of split. Included in the district are the locales of Atlantic Beach and Inwood, both with very minimal populations supportive or sympathetic to the plight of yeshiva parents. Some have thought years ago that it was indeed long past due that these communities have more representation on the schools’ governing board. After all, there are more than 2,200 students attending the district’s public schools.
Mr. Lunin-Pack, in an e-mail to supporters, writes, “With your help I can and will win this election. For the first time, the private-school community is running two candidates against each other. In other words, the opposition is divided. We cannot allow this opportunity to slip away from us.”
So why are there two Orthodox Jewish candidates running against one another in such a relatively small community where there is very little difference between the outlooks and policies of whoever is elected from these communities?
It is a difficult question to find a good answer to. There certainly is a measure of anger and mistrust of some on the current board over what several community people from the Number Six School area say was an uncaring and even flippant attitude toward whether or not a medical facility was going to be opened on the site. They felt that the board was blinded by the offer of the money without consideration of any other factors. They believe that a change in one or two seats on the board will go a long way in preventing these types of very unpleasant situations from developing again.
On the other hand, the current board has performed for many years in an exemplary and efficient fashion. Board President and good friend Dr. Asher Mansdorf has conceded many times that the sale of the Number Six School could have and should have been handled differently. If the exact same personalities would be elected to the next board, it is very far from likely that such a divisive scene would be played out again. Mansdorf has said more than a few times that he does not understand why a board that has performed so well is being judged by one episode that, in retrospect, turned out well anyway.
In the other race, former board member Michael Hatten is opposing incumbent Rabbi Nahum Marcus. There is a third candidate, identified with the public schools, Juan Zapeta of Inwood. Though he filed his petitions, last week word surfaced that Mr. Zapeta may have withdrawn his candidacy. There is so much misinformation floating around, however, it is difficult to discern fact from fiction.
The curious thing in this race is that on a board that values incumbency as something sacred, an incumbent is being challenged by a former board member—Mr. Hatten. Both he and Marcus are members of the Orthodox community with children in yeshivas. Both understand and have hands-on experience in serving on boards and managing a school district. So one has to wonder why they are running against one another.
For his part, Hatten says that he was under the impression that Rabbi Marcus was not interested in seeking reelection. Marcus says that Hatten never bothered to ask him directly whether he would be seeking reelection or not. At least in this scenario there is no other candidate involved. Both are good, sincere, and dedicated individuals and will serve the community well regardless of who is elected on May 21.
Unfortunately, the big losers in this one are community leaders who could not convince some of the candidates to withdraw so that there is not a contested election and this board could continue its work without distractions. They certainly made a deliberate and concerted effort, but that effort seems to have failed.
But then again things change with time. With the referendum on the Number Six School, which was filled with contention, it was left to the voters to come out and express themselves as a communal unit, and they did just that. I suppose that after all the jockeying for position and backroom meetings, that performance will repeat itself and the people will decide what they feel is best for the community. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.