Port Washington school board President Nora Johnson, Vice President Elizabeth Weisburd and Trustee Larry Greenstein say they are prepared to take on new terms following a hectic year, and say that claims by their opponents may have hindered back-to-school plans in the fall.
The three incumbents are being challenged for their seats in the May 18 election by a competing slate, comprising parents Adam Smith, Adam Block and Justin Renna, and by Nanette Melkonian, who is unaffiliated with a slate.
In a joint Zoom interview of the three incumbents with Blank Slate Media, Johnson touted three recently launched district initiatives: a partnership with NYU Metro’s Innovations in Equity Inclusion and Social Change, the district’s pursuing of vision and mission work, and the district’s RULER program, which focuses on emotional science for students and faculty.
“We are doing like a deep dive to look at the equity and to improve the equity in our school district for all students,” Johnson said. “And I say the thing that I am most proud of overall, is [that] my only agenda has always been what’s best for every student in the community. And it’s always a balancing [act], because there’s a lot of competing interests, of course, but I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve never had an agenda other than what’s best for all the kids.”
Johnson is a 19-year Port Washington resident, a registered nurse and practicing attorney who has been on the board since 2012. She was elected president two years ago, having previously served as president of the Sousa Elementary Home School Association, co-president of the Schreiber High Home School Association and president of the Community Scholarship Fund, and having co-chaired Relay for Life and served on the board of Port’s ED Foundation.
Johnson said she took great pride in the 2015 facilities bond, which includes new science rooms, a music wing at Weber Elementary, turf fields and increased classroom space, among other additions.
Weisburd is seeking her third term on the board and chairs the district’s Budget and Facilities Committee. Before becoming a parent, she worked as a special education instructor, and first became involved in the district while advocating for a district bond in the early 2000s, when her children were in preschool.
“As a preschool parent I started noticing and becoming involved in advocacy with the school district, then realizing that those decisions in that bond and that work was going to impact my children when they were in school,” Weisburd said.
Since then, she has been involved with the Special Education PTA, HEARTS, the ED Foundation and the Viking Sports Foundation and has seen the effects of various programs as her three children went through school.
“I don’t think there’s a program in this district that didn’t touch one of my children in some way, shape or form,” Weisburd said. “And because of that, I understand the importance of all of them. And I understand the impact that they all have. And so that’s made me a much better board member, just because I have that deep understanding of how important each of those things were at every level.”
Greenstein has served on the board since 2005, chairs its Curriculum Committee and prior to that served as president of the district’s Special Education PTA. Active in disability advocacy as a parent of a child with “severe handicaps,” he said, he is a graduate of the Partners in Policymaking training program for disability advocates, a member of the board of Nassau County BOCES, and serves as the secretary-treasurer of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. He previously served as treasurer of the former Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, now Residents Forward.
He also serves on the district’s Legislative Task Force, which works with legislators to try and improve policies and funding for schools.
“We have one of the lowest percentages of foundation aid because everybody thinks we’re wealthy, but but we got one of the highest percentage increases [in the past year],” Greenstein said, referring to one category of state aid. “And that’s partly due to the relationships we built through the Legislative Task Force.”
All three incumbents noted that those served by the district had sought better communication in years past, and Johnson said that the issue had improved, and would continue to.
“We have improved communication with the stakeholders, and we’re always looking to improve that,” Johnson said. “We’ve really had to do a lot of communicating, and wanted to do a lot of communicating this year, especially during the COVID crisis.”
“Sometimes it looks like we’re not answering your question, because it’s information that we are not allowed to divulge,” Greenstein said. “Whereas people who are not on the board can speculate, however they want, about what that information is or isn’t [true]. So it puts us at a little bit of a disadvantage. If a parent complained about a teacher, we can’t go and say if any action was taken against the teacher or if it had any merit whatsoever. We’re not allowed to say that. And so that is sometimes seen as being well, you’re not being transparent. Well, yeah, there are some things we are not allowed to say.”
Johnson said staff negotiations and adhering to health and safety protocols were also factors that made it difficult to appease all community stakeholders.
“We had to make sure we were going to have enough staff members and enough teachers willing to come in to the buildings and teach if we went all-in with desk shields less than six feet apart,” Johnson said. “We had to present those plans and make sure that the staff felt safe coming to work under those circumstances. So all of those things were happening at once.”
The board president added that the difficulties in reopening schools in the fall of 2020 were exacerbated by parent and student protests, creating another issue for the board to deal with.
“I know that three of the four newcomers have made a platform pretty much about their claim that they’re responsible for the fact that K to 5 went back in full time. And that really couldn’t be further from the truth,” Johnson said, referring to Smith, Block and Renna. “We had an equal number of families asking us to please, please, please go hybrid, because they didn’t want their kids in full time. There were also many parents who wrote to us, ‘don’t open at all, we want remote school.’ So there were clearly three different groups that understandably, had three different positions on what the school should look like.”
In an emailed statement, the slate of Block, Renna and Smith responded to this statement, claiming that the district had changed direction “abruptly.”
“On Aug. 20 , the administration abruptly changed direction from elementary ‘all-in’ to a vague, poorly thought out hybrid model,” the statement said. “On Aug. 24, hundreds of community members attended a rally that was covered by multiple local news outlets. On Aug. 27, the administration announced all-in for elementary school. The incumbents may claim this was their idea, but the facts speak for themselves.
“However, this campaign is not about our success with 5 Days for Port, it is about the community’s lack of trust in the current incumbents running for re-election and declining educational performance and reputation compared to neighboring communities, and it is about rebuilding trust, transparency and open communication between the board and the community.”
As for next fall, Greenstein said that the trio and the rest of the board are “hoping and planning that September 2021 will be like September 2019.”
“We’re planning on bringing back anything that we had to defer. We’re planning on everybody being back in the school,” Greenstein said. “I think some of this stuff, like some of the technology and some of the cleaning is here to stay. But academically, we’re trying to get back to where we were so that we can move on. We may have to you, know, pivot – part of it is how how many people get the vaccines as the age limit drops. We’re hoping that our students as well as our staff are, you know, are vaccinated and that risk level is low.”
Johnson said that while mask-wearing and social distancing will probably be in place in the fall, the expectation remains that in-person classes will continue throughout the district, which will be ready for another pivot, if necessary.
“If the school year and last school year taught us anything, it’s that we have the ability to pivot on a dime,” Johnson said. “And so if we have to pivot in September, we will pivot. The nice thing is we’ve already done it all.”
Those in the district who are registered to vote can go to the in-person polling location, in the all-purpose room of the Flower Hill section of the Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School, located at 52 Campus Drive in Port Washington, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on May 18.