Ending the longest consecutive term as president of the Great Neck Board of Education, Barbara Berkowitz handed over the job to Rebecca Sassouni at a swearing-in ceremony last Thursday.
In remarks after taking her oath of office, Sassouni alluded to a majority opinion from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer calling American public schools nurseries of democracy.
“As president I intend to lead with an open mind and a generative growth mindset in order to work with my colleagues,” she said. “We will work to open our minds and share ideas and best practices, among the board, the administration and in the policies we enact. Where we may differ, we will try to reach consensus.”
Sassouni, who defeated challenger John Jhang last year, assured the public there will continue to be time allocated to hear comments. She also hinted at using video conferencing technology to allow for remote viewing.
“The GNPS Board has long been and will continue to be mindful of the community we serve as fiduciaries, the children entrusted to our care, and the staff whose chosen profession was and will always be noble even before they were thrust into the role of ‘first responders’ due to COVID-19,” Sassouni said. “Please know we are here to hear, and we do, even when you may not get the quick answer or retort you desire.”
A mother of four Great Neck public school alums and 27-year resident of the peninsula, Sassouni suggested a grander vision for her district – one with a diversity of thought and civil discourse.
“It is my sincere hope that we can model democracy and the marketplace of ideas at our meetings and in our community,” Sassouni said. “To that end, although I am honored to hold this gavel … I hope never to use it.”
Berkowitz, who had been president since 2006, will continue to serve as a trustee.
“I will certainly do my part, just not as president in the coming year,” she said. “It’s time for a change for the board, and I realize for myself.”
District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast also attended the meeting. She offered thanks to the schools’ faculty and staff and gave an assessment of student learning progress during a year spent adjusting to life with coronavirus.
“When you think about some of the challenges that other school districts faced, I feel quite confident in stating that there was no academic learning losses for our students,” Prendergast said. “Social and emotional components were also available to meet their needs as well as the needs of their family.”
Trustees changed more than their seats on the board. The district’s policy on bullying and harassment also got an adjustment, courtesy of an act signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2019 that clarifies discrimination based on race including hairstyles or other associated traits.
The amendment outlines characteristics that bullying or harassment may be based on, such as hair texture, protective hairstyles and sexual orientation. It was adopted unanimously.