Aitken, Block outline platforms in Manhasset, Port races

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Manhasset school board President Patricia Aitken is seeking re-election to her seat. (Photo courtesy of the Manhasset School District)

An incumbent on the Manhasset school board and a challenger for the Port Washington school board have outlined their platforms for the elections taking place on June 9.

Manhasset school board President Patricia Aitken, running against newcomer Evan Mandery, said in a letter to Blank Slate Media that her accomplishments make her ideal for the uncertain future the COVID-19 crisis presents.

“As a Manhasset resident for over 22 years and the mother of three children who went through our excellent public schools, I decided to run for the Manhasset Board of Education because I cared about our children and because I knew I could make a meaningful contribution,” Aitken wrote.

“We actively engage in the important dialogue about the educational issues we all care about. Our common bond has been our values, which are at the heart of our hopes and aspirations for our community and our children, and the quality of education we provide to them.”

Among her proudest achievements during her tenure on the board, Aitken wrote, are seeing the Manhasset district ranked as the best in the county for science, technology, engineering and math, and 23rd in the country; keeping the tax levy at an average 2.1 percent increase over the past 12 years; and the secondary school’s receiving a National Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education.

Aitken, who succeeded longtime President Regina Rule last spring, said that the first year she ran for the board in 2005 was also a challenging time.

“My message then is just as relevant now during today’s uncertainty,” she wrote. “We must balance competing demands, collaborate among all stakeholders, and strive to ensure a high-quality education for all students, all within the framework of fiscal prudence.”

A financial professional prior to her board service, Aitken says the skills she acquired through years of managing “financially troubled” businesses “are only part of the equation.”

“The impetus to initially become involved on the school board was my commitment to bring about positive change, my sincere motivation to do what’s right for all our students and to serve our community and our children,” Aitken wrote. “Today, that remains my motivation to stay involved.”

Meanwhile, in Port Washington, native Block says his run for the Port school board is motivated by a sense of “apathy” he’s seen from the board in the past.

Block, whose name will be included on the absentee ballots being sent to Port residents two weeks before the election on June 7, is himself a graduate of Schreiber High School, later earning a bachelor’s in neuroscience from Amherst College and a Ph.D. in health policy with a concentration in economics from Harvard University. Over the course of his career, he has worked as an economist for the U.S. Congress and wrote regulations for the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the race, he will compete against three other candidates, Dave Kerpen Julie Epstein and Rachel Gilliar, for two seats, with the top finishers winning.

Block currently works in health care finance as a principal at Charm Economics, a Port-based firm that he founded, and in 2017 began teaching at New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice as an assistant professor of health policy and management, where he says he taught half of his classes in person and the other half online.

In addition to his work at Charm and as a professor, Block owns and operates Port Skis, a ski equipment rental service based in Port, and is treasurer of Salem Elementary School’s Home School Association.

After working out of state for several years, Block, his wife and his three children returned to Port four years ago. His two oldest children, a pair of fraternal twins, began going to the public schools shortly thereafter.

It was his oldest son, then in kindergarten, who brought an issue to Block’s attention.

“[My son] started saying his teacher was absent a lot,” Block said. “I talked to some parents and found that the teacher had absent 36 [separate] days of the year. I gathered all the students, got signatures from parents, and present a letter to school board in June of 2017.”

Block says the school board “promised that something would be done and that they would get back” to him.

“Neither happened so far,” Block said. “The school should have known, I shouldn’t have to  hear from my 5-year-old.”

But what made Block want to run for school board occurred more recently, with the onset of COVID-19. Once the schools closed, he said, his three children received 40 minutes a week of online schooling, with the rest being homework assignments.

Block, who teaches five hours a week online as part of his teaching job, and other parents decided to voice their concerns to the school board during a March 31 meeting held over Zoom.

“At the meeting, the board decided they would open the chat for questions instead of a section where people could talk,” Block said. “They basically shut out parents, and when it was scheduled to end at 9:30, they shut it down even though more people had questions in the chat.”

Block said he felt that his “concerns were falling on deaf ears,” and has ideas of how to return to school in the fall.

“Now we know it’s through the end of June,” Block said. “When I think of September I’m terrified, online is a better substitute than nothing but I want there to be some in-person option, and we need some expertise on the board. Instead of having 20 kids in a classroom, how about 10 kids in the classroom, evenly spaced, for 3 hours and no lunch. Meanwhile, the school is totally capable of doing more. All the other businesses have found a way to partly return, why not the schools?”

Among other issues, Block says that he intends to vote in favor of the district’s proposed 2020-21 budget, but that he intends to work on it if elected.

“I am pro-budget,” Block said. “I’m going to vote for the budget and I expect to always vote for the budget, but it is a symptom of long-term mismanagement. I intend to come in, be more of a hands on board member and really understand what the district is doing.”

Block is also in favor of implementing child care programs and other after-school programs.

“When I joined [Salem HSA], there were zero after-school programs,” Block said. “I worked hard to institute a science club at Salem. Meanwhile, there are a ton of external after-school activities that would be great to have at school, adding child care. All, I think, would be budget neutral.”

All in all, Block says he sees a need for a “fresh voice” on the board.

“The voice of the parents I hear, the frustration I see indicates that nobody’s buying this,” Block said. “Our students deserve more.”

Efforts to reach the Port Washington school district were unavailing.

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