Rebecca Sassouni, who is running to retain her seat on the Great Neck Board of Education, said voting for someone with experience serving the public is paramount.
Sassouni, a lawyer and Great Neck resident, spoke on the challenges Great Neck and Nassau County residents have faced in the past three years during her first term and said voting for someone who has district residents’ best interest at heart is of high importance.
She is running against John Jahng.
“There is a lot at stake in this election, and it goes beyond people not being able to get in their cars to go stand in line and vote,” Sassouni said in an interview with Blank Slate Media. “I’m deeply concerned that there is a great deal of anxiety going around Great Neck and all throughout Nassau County with people not knowing how or when they will pay their taxes or support their families.”
Sassouni touted her experience serving the community before and after being elected to the school board in 2017.
She has served as parent co-chair for the Shared Decision Making Committee at Great Neck North High School and John F. Kennedy School, a past officer for the United Parent Teacher Council and chair of its legislative committee, and is the current president of the Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc.
“I have been involved with the community in some very gratifying, meaningful and important ways,” Sassouni said. “I have a very procedural mindset when it comes to the Board of Education, and I’m a strong believer that procedures have helped us more efficiently as a board the past three years.”
Sassouni said that many of the issues and concerns she has heard from the public were centered around the coronavirus pandemic causing Nassau County to close schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.
More specifically, she said, distance learning and planning future alternatives for the coming school year have been of high importance in the school district.
“Nobody knows what schools will look like come September, and with the unknown comes frustration,” Sassouni said. “Though there have been a few glitches with the technological side of distance learning, people must keep in mind that this was all very new to us, and schools had to be closed at the drop of a hat’s notice.”
As in years past, the district’s adopted budget, $241 million for the 2020-21 school year, has also been a prominent topic of discussion among taxpayers and constituent groups, Sassouni said.
“There is an extensive amount of planning that goes into developing and ultimately adopting a budget each year,” Sassouni said. “We always try to take everything into account including feedback from parents, stakeholders, educators and assistant superintendents from the affected schools.”
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding what the school system will look like in September, people have taken an even higher interest in knowing where their money is going, according to Sassouni.
“I hope that people do not vote for or against me regarding their feelings toward this year’s budget,” Sassouni said. “I am a trustee seeking re-election. I am not a budget.”
At a virtual budget adoption meeting on May 13, Board of Education President Barbara Berkowitz said that though no decisions about a potential reduction of state aid have been made, the district’s diligence with its appropriated reserves and fund balance will mitigate any potential adverse effects.
“I’ve referred to the [appropriated reserves and fund balance] as a rainy-day fund sometimes,” Berkowitz said. “It allows us comfort with any unanticipated events like a tree falling through the roof of a school, or major leaks within a school. Things that we cannot anticipate to happen.”
Sassouni said all four of her children passed through the school district, with her youngest on the verge of remote graduation this June, due to the pandemic. Despite running for the first time without a child in the school district, Sassouni said, she will continue to hold feedback from parents and tax-paying residents in high regard.
“Being a parent and having my children move through our public schools’ system, I share the same concerns as many parents in the district,” Sassouni said. “I can assure people that I work hard to uphold my fiduciary duty to all affected stakeholders within the district.”
Jahng, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, said his son is a Juilliard pre-college student. Sassouni said while she has no issue with anyone obtaining a private school education, trying to adopt a private school model into a public school district is “very concerning.”
“The notion that Great Neck, as a public school district, should adopt the model of Brooklyn Tech, or any other school like that is very problematic,” Sassouni said. “I attended Hunter College High School for seventh and eighth grade before my family moved to the suburbs. It is not a personal attack, but I am curious how, if at all, his experience at Brooklyn Tech translates to being a trustee for this board.”
“I don’t think we can make a blanket response for public or private school curriculums, there are positives and negatives for both,” Jahng said in response. “There is plenty to draw from both aspects. One of the goals of the board is to put together the best curriculum for our students. To do that, it’s important to explore all resources.”
Sassouni noted that nowhere on Jahng’s website, https://www.jahngforboardofed.com/, has the budget been listed. Sassouni said she has not heard any stance Jahng has on the budget and views it as a “glaring omission” in his school board campaign.
Jahng said he is in the process of analyzing the budget more closely and lauded the board’s efforts for having the constituents’ best interest at heart.
“My stance on the budget is that I generally approve of the budget allocations and the board’s work,” he said. “That’s not to say it is perfect or could not be improved, but I have full trust that the board developed the budget while looking out for everyone’s best interest.”
Elections will take place on June 9 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, everyone who resides in the district and is registered to vote will receive an absentee ballot, according to Berkowitz.
Berkowitz said the ballots are not applications to have an absentee ballot sent to voters, but rather the absentee ballot with a postage-paid envelope included.
Berkowitz said the district is sending out more than 30,000 ballots, which must be received no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9.