Viewpoint: Sassouni’s experience invaluable to Great Neck ed board

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

A community is largely defined – and a society shaped – by its schools. If you want to know who we are, look at our schools. Of all the institutions, it is the one that binds us together as the Greater Great Neck.

We are fortunate to have a school board of such competence, high caliber and dedication as our schools – our community – are in the throes of two unprecedented crises: public health and economics. We’ve had safety challenges after Columbine and Parkland, and we’ve had severe economic hardship such as after the 2008 recession, but never one crisis feeding on another, exacerbating the harm as today.

The school board, in conjunction with administrators and stakeholders, is presently devising strategies against different scenarios that may come from the state – to remain closed and continue virtual classroom, to reopen with new health and safety guidelines, or some combination (such as half the class in person when half the class is on computer).

We’ve been blessed for generations of students to have had competent, strong leadership dedicated to the mission and guiding philosophy: to provide such a strong educational program so that each child, regardless of ability, can fulfill their full potential and become lifelong learners to adapt to whatever the future holds and even produce those world-changing innovations.

This is no time to abandon that strong leadership.

Two trustees are up for re-election, but only one, Rebecca Sassouni, is being challenged. Her challenger, John Jahng, is an investment manager who has lived in Great Neck for 12 years, and in that time has attended one board meeting, he told me in a phone interview. His first-hand knowledge of Great Neck public schools comes from having a son who attended Great Neck elementary school, but now attends a private middle school.

Asked about the ever-present challenges to the school budget,  his big idea is to expand extra-curricular offerings by getting parents to volunteer their skills, like technology or investments. Except that the schools already offer a rich program of opportunities to cultivate all of those abilities – Robotics, Science Research, DECA investment club, Mock Trial, Model UN, Model Congress, music, theater  — that do not just enhance learning but in many ways are even more valuable than the mandated curriculum (check out the list on the district website; it is mind-blowing).

Elect me, Jahng said, because our children need to be prepared for the changes that will come in 20 years time. That sounds good, except that is exactly what we’ve been doing. Who can argue that things have not radically changed from 20 years ago – pre-9/11, pre-Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom – and our Great Neck alum have thrived, even contributed to those innovations, and I have no doubt the preparation that our students are getting, because of the decisions the school board has made, will continue.

Through Solomon-like, judicious decision-making, they have managed in a way few school districts have, to thread the needle between tax caps, budget pressures, state mandates and continue to provide the resources, the small-class sizes, the extra-curriculars that have proved so successful, and deliver a public school education to which every child is entitled, as good as the most selective, elite, even private schools – and do it at a per-pupil cost not much different from New York City (which gets half its funding from state aid vs. less than 4 percent for Great Neck). Great Neck doesn’t need to take lessons from Brooklyn Tech; rather, as Gov. Cuomo again talks about education equity, it is Great Neck that should provide the template and the standard and not the other way around.

Sassouni, who lived in Great Neck for 26 years and put four children through Great Neck’s public schools (the youngest about to “virtually” graduate high school), has been engaged in the public schools since well before she was elected to her first term, and now has become a key member of the team which labors to balance the often competing interests of the stakeholders in a public school system – students, faculty, administrators, staff, parents, taxpayers, local and state government, where every decision evokes passion pro and con.

“We need to protect the standing of the public schools so they remain the jewel they are and Great Neck remains the destination people come to, to raise their family, establish roots,” Sassouni, said in a phone interview.

I don’t know how Jahng could possibly understand the complexity of the role or the underlying issues – he has not even participated in the budget process.

“I have full trust in the current board that they were very thoughtful when came out with this budget and considered interests of all the stakeholders in the community,” Jahng said.

Asked for any specific proposals he would make, Jahng said, “We have a very good system in place. At the same time, what I am proposing is that we put more thought and resources into our curriculum, so that we are better prepared for change that will come. In 10-20 years, a lot of what we do will be automated. And that will create opportunity but also a threat.”

The Great Neck Board unanimously adopted a $241 million budget for 2020-21, an increase of $7 million (enrollment continues to increase). But, mindful of the extraordinary pressures on taxpayers, this amount cut out $1.4 million in planned additions. The property tax portion of the district’s revenue (about 95 percent of the budget) will increase 2.57 percent, well under what would have been allowed under the tax cap formula of 4.16 percent.

“Our children need the continuity of instruction now more than ever with all the other changes in their young lives,” said Board President Barbara Berkowitz. “These students deserve the same high standards of educational opportunities as those who came before them, and those who will follow. As a Board of Education, that is our responsibility.”

Re-elect Rebecca Sassouni and Jeffrey Shi and vote to adopt the school and library budgets. Mail in or drop off the ballot at Phipps Administration Building (345 Lakeville Rd.) no later than 5 p.m. on June 9.

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