Great Neck doesn't often have a contested election for member of the School Board - probably because this education-oriented community values having one of the highest performing, most successful districts in the country, because these trustees do all this work on our behalf for zero compensation except for the knowledge of having provided opportunities for thousands of children to reach their full potential in life, and because the job entails so much skill, breadth of expertise, time and effort, and responsibility. How much responsibility? Overseeing a $200 million budget, thousands of employees, thousands of children, 10 buildings, acres of grounds, and the need to combine the expertise of government, finance, education, environment, construction, psychology, and law (have I missed anything?)
This year there is a challenger, and this fact alone warrants attention. But attention is called for because the candidate, Chris Huang, up until now had virtually no direct involvement with the school district, not on a school level (he hasn't been a member of the PTA or UPTC) and is therefore a complete unknown to anyone outside his immediate community.
By his own account, Huang has attended only two school board meetings in his 25 years living in Great Neck, during which time two of his children have gone through the system (his youngest is still a sophomore, his oldest is at Berkeley). Only one of them was concerned with the 2014-5 budget, but he did not attend the Saturday meeting where the budget is picked apart line by line, item by item, to justify each allocation.
What is motivating Huang to run? It seems he is singularly focused on college admissions - more specifically, how AP grades are weighted for college admission and Great Neck's apparently slip behind Jericho and Manhasset in the US News rankings, despite the fact Great Neck is still named among the nation's Top 100.
About Great Neck's slip in rankings, he says, "I think our administration takes a very cavalier attitude to the fact we are #3 now (Newsday puts 5 or 6 – I don’t know the metrics). For me, if I were on the board, I would hope the administration – all the superintendents, we have too many, too many assistant superintendents, principals - are accountable for that. The only measure for me that you are doing a good job for education is graduation rate, how many kids are sent to better schools, and by the rankings. Rankings can be manipulated, I know. If [the ranking] can be manipulated, we have to see what those metrics are and try to achieve it. Because when people look at it, just like when they buy car or computer – you just look at rankings. Like it or not, that is a measure of whether they have succeeded or failed."
And he wants heads to roll if Great Neck does not recover the top spot. #1.
"If they don’t shape up, we need to send complete message:' We will replace all of you'." Of Superintendent Tom Dolan he says, "He is a very eloquent speaker, able to command a lot of detail. That’s great, but at the end of the day, everybody should be results driven. I will give him time to do so – we need to bring in different people. I'm not saying Tom Dolan is not the right person, but he has to feel that he must have to carry that responsibility much more seriously."
About his objective to weight AP grades, he says, "Great Neck shouldn’t be the only [district that does not weight AP grades]. We need to know what would make us more competitive. What would make our ranking go up ? College readiness, AP grades. We need to do enough window dressing – this is a shame, we shouldn’t be doing that - but this is reality, in today’s world."
But his complaint that the School board has not taken sufficiently seriously his pet peeve - weighting AP grades - is contradicted by the fact that the school formed a committee to study the issue and make a recommendation to the board this year.
Huang is on the committee, but in comments that do not bode well for the collaborative style of the school board, he says, "There are 16 people. How can you accomplish anything with 16? You are guaranteed 17 different opinions. You can’t make a decision based on such a large committee. I don’t know how to solve this, because democracy is a lot of times ugly business. Everyone entitled to his or her opinion. I respect that, but [not] when you don’t have facts at hand. So when I went into the meeting, everyone speaking off the cuff. I was only one who had done some research. Everybody else said Great Neck should be a beacon of truth, stand on its own.
"Whatever we are doing, we are no longer making students competitive."
[Board President Barbara Berkowitz clearly took the request seriously and the board formed a joint committee, unusual in that it had representatives from both north and south schools. She said that the Board is awaiting the committee's recommendations as to changing its policy on AP grades, and then will deliberate in public meetings.]
The budget is the lifeblood of the school district. It reflects the values, the priorities and provides the means to fulfill the mission of the school district.
Despite never having participated in the budget process, never seeing it unfold and having no actual clue what the budget contains, Huang dismisses the budget reflexively as "too much" without sharing a single item that he believes is overspent. And despite all this district does to keep the community informed - publishing the entire budget, holding multiple open meetings, website, emails, newsletters, cards that are sent listing all the budget meeting dates and voting information - Huang feels justified to wage broad attacks on what he asserts is the lack of transparency by the School Board (which would come as a shock to the people who actually attend school board meetings and see the process). In fact, he criticizes Superintendent Tom Dolan for "going on for five minutes" to explain a $30,000 or $40,000 expenditure, and the one budget meeting he attended.
"When you try to save $40,000 out of $210 million and make such a painstaking point of explaining to the audience how important that is, you are missing the big picture," he says.
"I am for education, so I don’t mind getting taxed. But we need to look at the budget as a whole – how can we use more efficiently to reduce overhead," he says in a single phrase that dismisses all the work that is done - in public - in conjunction with the building leadership and administrators, to accomplish exactly that: reducing overhead, using every tax dollar in the most efficient way possible, and increasing revenue wherever possible.
As for his own lack of experience in the school district compared to the trustees he is challenging - Lawrence Gross who was first elected to the board in 1981 largely in a parent revolt at the time and who has helped steer the district through the financial crisis without destroying the academic program, and Susan Healy, who has been involved in school matters since her children were in school, rising up from PTA to UPTC when she was first appointed to fill a vacancy on the board seven years ago and who has demonstrated her sensitivity to the fact that "one size doesn't fit all" children - he dismisses it.
"I think experience does count – I do not want to diminish – but at the same time, if you look at experience and this is the result I am getting in terms of ranking, budget utilization, I’m sorry, your experience did not pay off."
But when I try to probe more detail to his broad statements, Huang picks himself up and declares the interview over after three questions and three minutes - losing any credibility to a claim of wanting more transparency on the board.
And what are the questions that so irritated him?
Considering his focus on AP grades and college admissions, I ask, "What is the mission of the school district" (the school board recites it at about a dozen meetings through the year). "To educate students" is how he answered. But the answer is "To provide an education for each student regardless of ability, to reach their full potential."
He has charged that the School Board does not listen to proposals that come from parents, so I ask him if he is familiar with Shared Decision Making committee within each school building. This is a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and students who collectively come up with policies and programs for their building. This is because this district has a "bubble up" style of management - even budget proposals originate from within the buildings.
But not every student in the district is an AP student. In fact, Great Neck is much more diverse than most high-achieving suburban districts to which he compares us, such as Jericho and Syosset.
So I ask, "What percentage of Great Neck students qualify for free or reduced lunch?"
Huang reacts angrily. "No idea why should I care about that. You are sounding like I need to be encyclopedia," he says, asserting that none of the other school board trustees would know the answer.
And with that, he stands up and declares the interview over.
In fact, the other school board members are extremely aware and sensitive to the fact that 12-15% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch - a high proportion for a high-achieving, suburban district like Great Neck which has a reputation for being wealthy - and the rate has grown from around 10%.
But students are not statistics or widgets. It is not like a factory that has been pushing out a certain product that achieved a certain ranking suddenly starts pushing out a product that is inferior. Each student is an individual and each class is a cohort of individuals. There is no IQ test for residency or admission to public schools.
And our population has been changing - along with how school districts are measured. With the Accountability Movement, the measures have been devised to undermine public schools in favor of privatized charter schools - hence the requirements to measure special needs students and English Language Learners the same as general students.
Our district has consistently made decisions that enhance the academic program and the educational experience for each child - doing as much as possible to reduce the anxiety and pressure of standardized tests, for example. The approach (which seems to quaint) is to instill a love of learning and the skills to make a lifetime learner.
One change is that the district has introduced extraordinarily successful programs for special needs students and students who benefit from alternative education strategies. Village School (where every child, who might otherwise have been at-risk for not graduating, graduates), the ACE Program housed at North, the SEAL Academy housed at Clover Drive (which literally saves lives). These programs are so successful that instead of our district paying other districts tuition, other districts pay Great Neck for any unfilled seats in these programs - in fact this year, such programs generated $1.8 million in revenue to the district.
But in a perverse way, the change in our student population may actually have caused us to slip in the rankings because it cuts into the percentage of our students that take AP classes.
And yet, Great Neck has an astonishingly high graduation rate - at North High, the rate is 99.2% with 95.2% going on to college; at South, the rate going to college is 98.3%;. (Statewide, the graduation rate is 74%, on par with the national rate, which is a record high).
The fact that each year at least one of our graduates is accepted to just about every Ivy League school - Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, completely escapes Huang, who apparently believes that multiple of our students should be accepted. He seems surprised when I suggest that colleges actually have quotas (geographic being only one of them). In fact, if you want to compare records, compare Great Neck's acceptance rate to that from public schools as a whole.
But these two elements - AP weighted averages and Great Neck's rankings on the US News list - are what proves to Huang that Great Neck's administration is failing.
The stated mission of the school district is to educate all children regardless of their ability, to reach their full potential.
And towards that end, a central core of the School Board and Administration has been to maintain low-class size (it is one of the reasons we maintain 3 high schools and two middle schools. Despite the property tax freeze and all the other pressures on districts, Great Neck has managed to maintain the lowest elementary class size in Nassau County: kindergarten has no more than 19 in a class; grades 1-2, 22; 3-5 no more than 24. It is a fundamental element to how the budget is constructed every year.
And the very fact we have two prominent high schools means we are more likely to have two Great Neck students instead of one admitted into the elite colleges (Huang did not seem to comprehend the idea that colleges would have geographical quotas).
"I decided to run because I wanted to see change," Huang says. "I want to see the administration to be held accountable – when we are slipping in ranking, the budget increasing I want to know why, and if you can’t do the job, I want a different person doing it.
"We pay the taxes and we hire these people, we are commanding you to do this job on our behalf. We expect higher returns."
When I look to vote for an individual to represent me on any public body, I look for someone who is likely to make improvements.
Huang takes aim at "some of the board members who have been on the board for 20 years" as if that is a bad thing. In fact, Lawrence Gross, who is one of the longest-serving members of the board, is also one of the ingenious architects of the budget. He is largely the reason why our school district has not had to cut out AP classes - as other districts have had to do along with anything that isn't actually mandated - have maintained our intramural sports, a robust academic intervention services program for students who need help as well as enrichment program. Gross is one of the reasons we can still offer our kids the extraordinary theater, music and arts programs - that enables South High to produce a full-scale opera and North High to produce an original, musical reinterpretation of Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale" - experiences that are just as valuable to our children's development, but everywhere else have had to set aside.
In a written statement, Gross in typical modest fashion, says, "These accomplishments require knowledge and hard work by the entire board and staff. It is definitely a time to make certain that the district has experienced leaders, knowledgeable in all of the many areas needed to maintain and enhance education in Great Neck. I believe that I have demonstrated the ability to do this work and hope that I will have the chance to continue my contributions to our educational future. You can see how important it is to me. Let’s continue to work together to keep our schools great for all of our students."
If you are looking for "new blood" though, Susan Healy has been on the board only for seven years, so she has completed the learning curve that every new trustee must undergo.
Healy states, "This is not an easy time for public education. The New York State mandates continue without the financial support. We work to lessen the burdens placed on our children and our faculty that comes with the state’s testing schedules. Our faculty continues to incorporate necessary skills into the curriculum in an attempt to lessen undue stress on our children. With all the attacks on education, we continue to work on ways not only to best deliver curriculum, but to enhance it. We are proud of our music, arts and sports programs which continue to thrive while in other districts they have had to be eliminated. Our secondary schools offer a wide array of clubs and activities to best meet the interest of our diverse student population. Carefully monitoring our budget is the reason we have been successful in these domains."
What strikes me most as I have sat in on School Board Meetings over the last 18 years, is how our trustees show no ego, no personal agenda, no interest in power plays. they have shown time and again their concern for the entire community and all its constituencies, frequently with competing interests, but always putting students first. To see what a collaborative process that respects a range of proposals and how this process results in better solutions is inspiring.
These are the perspectives, values and skills that have made our school district so successful. But you cannot take such success for granted. People do matter. Who we elect and entrust to represent us does matter.
"Change" for change's sake is not a rationale, even if it makes a good slogan.
On Tuesday, May 20, we get to vote to adopt the school budget and also to return to the board two trustees, Lawrence Gross and Susan Healy.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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