Three incumbents running for trustee in two school districts that serve parts of the Manhasset area are laying out their platforms for re-election on June 9.

Rachel Gilliar said in an interview she is seeking re-election as a trustee on the Port Washington Board of Education to aid in developing creative curriculums for students and retaining the educators in charge of teaching them.

Gilliar, a mother of four, is running against Adam Block, Julie Epstein and Christina Nadolne in this year’s election, with the top two finishers winning seats on the board.

Gilliar said she first ran for the board in 2017 after implementing a camp centering around innovative and out-of-the-box learning for students throughout the North Shore.

“I sent my two oldest children to Camp Invention the summer before they entered the first grade,” Gilliar said in a phone interview with Blank Slate Media. “After I saw how wonderful and unique the programming was, I wondered why there was no location closer than the one in Rockville Centre.”

Gilliar said she became an integral part of bringing Camp Invention to Port Washington, so much so that she became the director of programming five years ago. Under Gilliar’s supervision, the program’s enrollment increased from 40 children in its first year to 140 this past summer, she said.

When she announced her candidacy three years ago, Gilliar said, one of the main areas she felt she could improve was the communication between the board, parents and other stakeholders within the school district.  

Now, on the verge of her second election, Gilliar said she is hoping to use the mended communication to implore residents to prioritize providing students with enrichment programs and the sufficient number of educators to instruct them.

“I’ve spent the past three years speaking to various parents, groups, stakeholders and educators, and tried to make them all realize that we are all on the same team here,” Gilliar said. “At the end of the day, we want to provide the best curriculum and education for our students.  When all of the moving pieces come together, I am confident there is nothing we can’t accomplish.”

While providing an enhanced curriculum and enrichment program has been on Gilliar’s to-do list for the past several years, this year’s election is headlined by unprecedented concerns that stretch far beyond the traditional ones.  

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gilliar said, the school district, like most others, had to adapt to distance learning procedures and virtual classrooms very quickly. Gilliar said the board has been proactive in its response, something she believed had a significant impact on the district being slightly ahead of the curve.

“Our district closed a bit ahead of other districts because as a board we felt that we had an obligation to keep the children in the community safe,” Gilliar said. “I read the science, and the trustees ultimately agreed that the faster we got into social distancing, the better the situation we would be in.”

Gilliar touted the work of the district’s tech department, Superintendent Michael Hynes and the entire administration for working throughout the pandemic to provide students with the resources they need, even beyond education.

“Administrators have literally gone knocking on doors throughout the district making sure that our students have the technological resources they need,” Gilliar said. “There are also a number of students within the district who depend on at least one meal from their school each day, and I am happy to say we have been able to provide those as well.”

Homework though, Gilliar said, does remain an issue with distance learning implemented throughout the district for the foreseeable future. While she touted the teachers’ ability to quickly adapt to new technology to educate their students, some people have found issues with how assignments have been distributed.

Gilliar said the coronavirus pandemic caused the board to go back to the drawing board regarding this year’s proposed $163.2 million budget, which has the second-lowest budget-to-budget increase in almost three decades, according to Board of Education President Nora Johnson.

“A lot of people don’t always realize the behind-the-scenes work that our board does,” Gilliar said. “A budget is tentatively drafted up by February or March, but with this pandemic, we had to go back and work tirelessly to prioritize our children’s education while keeping under the state-mandated tax levy as well.”

Gilliar said her ability to follow through on promises and interact with the affected stakeholders that reside in the district makes her an ideal candidate in this year’s election.

“I have the track record of listening to parents, administrators and educators,” Gilliar said. “I think all of them are vital pieces in the puzzle of making education fantastic in Port Washington. It’s going to be a difficult year for education, but I have the experience and commitment to help guide us through that together.”

South of the Manhasset area, two Herricks Board of Education members, Henry R. Zanetti and James Gounaris, are running for re-election against challengers.

Bhajan S. Ratra is challenging Zanetti, and Tarantej S. Arora is running against Gounaris.

Zanetti, a Williston Park resident who served on the Herricks PTA for over a decade, was elected to the board in 2017. He is now running for his second term.

Gounaris, a Manhasset Hills resident, was president of the board from 2013 to 2015. He is now running for his fourth term on the board.

Ratra is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Baruch College and SUNY Farmingdale. He is a panel member on the content advisory and bias review committees of New York State Teaching Certification Examination and has served in the past on the standards setting committee for the NYS Regents exams.

“As a member of the Board of Education, I would like to bring my experience to serve the community,” he said. “I believe that it is critical that the Board of Education has members who have deep insight into how kids learn best and how we can improve and grow our systems and structures to provide them with 21st-century skills … As an educator, I will be able to guide the conversations and influence the decisions in ways that help us to move our school district from good to great.”

“My three core goals are collaboration, accountability and transparency, which I don’t see here,” explained Ratra. “When the Board of Education has a meeting, they’re doing a phone meeting, and they’re not taking questions live. That’s not fair. That’s not transparent. A lot of parents are anxious, they have questions, but they are only able to listen.”

“I want to make sure we put students first, and that the budget cut does not affect students or their families,” he added.

Efforts to reach Arora were unavailing.

Both Zanetti and Gounaris emphasized that they want to keep up the momentum that the current board has built.

“We believe that we have a very good team of people on our board,” said Zanetti. “We want to keep it up. We’re facing a lot of things that need to be addressed. Obviously the big one is what happens in September, and it would be best to have an established group deal with that.”

“We don’t believe our work is done yet,” agreed Gounaris. “We’re running to see the completion of a lot of our goals, a lot of our programs. We’ve made commitments and we’re running for re-election to make sure that we live up to our word and see through to completion those promises we’ve made to the Herricks community.”

Ratra said that the incumbents are “good people,” but that they do not have backgrounds in education. He stressed that he has been in the education field for 20 years.

As the district begins to plan for the fall, it is important to have a “steady hand” leading the charge, Gounaris said.

“[Zanetti and I] have seen the district go through a lot of changes,” he commented. “Henry and I, together with the other board members, really provide the structural policy basis for [the district’s] goals to be met. And our past history of achievements and the new programs starting in September and our short- and long-term goals all tell the same story. They tell a story of success by collaborating with everyone, by communicating with everyone, and by making sure that we as a community work together to get to where we want to go.”

Zanetti said that the board has to plan for three scenarios for the fall: fully returning to school, keeping classes entirely online and a hybrid of these options.

There are a lot of things to consider if schools reopen in the fall, such as keeping students safe during lunch, gym class, recess and time between classes when the hallways are crowded with people, he said.

Zanetti added that the board has learned a lot of important lessons alongside the teachers during the school shutdown.

“We know what works, what needs to be improved, and we will continue working on that over the summer,” he said.

Without further instruction from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, the board does not know what to plan for, Zanetti commented.

Both Zanetti and Gounaris named the budget as the biggest issue facing the board. The amount of state aid that school districts will receive has not yet been determined, and therefore Herricks had to design a flexible budget.

“In the budget that we’re proposing, we numbered all of the items from number five to number one, one being the most important,” explained Zanetti. “But if we lose more state aid than we think, we might end up having to lose all of the number fives.”

He added that if the budget passes, it will give the district the ability to compensate for a loss in state aid.

“The challenge is to make sure this budget passes,” emphasized Gounaris. “If the budget fails and we have to start going into a contingency budget, there are some really tough implications with that.”

In order to preserve class sizes and the programs that are currently in place, the budget would need to pass, said Gounaris.

Ratra criticized the 2 to 3 percent increase in the proposed budget.

“What’s going to happen? It’s going to place the burden on the taxpayer. We’re not thinking as a community,” he said.

Ratra added that he believes the board needs to provide a detailed breakdown of the budget proposal to the community, which he said has not happened in the past.

“Something is not working, because there is no transparency,” he said.

He also emphasized that he believes there needs to be more accountability on the Herricks board.

For example, he said, he has been urging the district to increase the middle school lunch period from 22 minutes to 25 minutes for the past three years. Many parents have also wanted the lunch period extended, according to Ratra.

When he proposed the idea to the board, he was told that the current amount of time has been sufficient for the past 20 years, he said. However, the district has decided to increase the lunch period to 25 minutes in the coming school year, said Ratra.

“Why didn’t they stick to what they told me in writing?” he said.

Zanetti and Gounaris said that residents should vote for them due to their thoroughness and persistence, as well as their cognizance of the fact that they are entrusted with taxpayers’ money.

“We like the phrase ‘constant improvement,’” said Zanetti. “We don’t sit still on anything. Jim and I are both people who spent a lot of time in the audience [at board meetings] before we became board members, and both of us are questioners, we want to know why, we need to know the reasoning before we do something.”

“We never forget the fact that we are always using the taxpayers’ money, and we treat those taxpayer funds as if it was our own,” said Gounaris. “We’re prudent, we’re careful, we like to see a return on our investment. We investigate how we’re using this money, why we’re using this money and what the yield result is for the students and the community.”

Absentee ballots for the elections must be received by the school district by Tuesday, June 9, at 5 p.m.


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