Herricks residents head to polls to elect two trustees, vote on budget amid child sex abuse lawsuits

Herricks residents head to polls to elect two trustees, vote on budget amid child sex abuse lawsuits
From left to right: Brian Hassan, Maria Bono, Ravinder Ratra, Surendra Gupta, Shaheda Quraishi and Eric Lo. (Courtesy of the candidates)

Herricks district residents are heading to the polls on May 21 to vote on seven candidates vying for two board of education seats and a $141 million budget that includes the cost of child sex abuse claims.

For one seat, Incumbent Trustee Brian Hassan is running for re-election against Maria Bono, who has been active on PTAs.

Newcomers Ravinder Ratra, Surendra Gupta, Shaheda Quraishi, Eric Lo and Russell Stuart are running for the seat left vacant by Trustee Nancy Feinstein, who is stepping down from the board after serving for 12 years.

An issue top of mind for candidates and residents alike is the cost of lawsuits filed against the Herricks district under the 2019 Child Victims Act, a law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for child sex abuse survivors.

Some 21 lawsuits against Herricks were filed by former students who claimed they were abused between 1973 and 1991 by then-school psychologist Vincent Festa.

In the cases that went to trial, plaintiffs alleged that the district ignored initial reports of abuse in the 1980s, thus permitting the abuse to ensue.

The district has paid $1.1 million to settle four of the 21 claims thus far. The board on Thursday approved the payment of up to $35 million in bonds to settle the remaining 17 claims against the district.

Hassan has lived in Albertson since 1977 and serves as the Albertson water commissioner. All three of his children graduated from the Herricks district. If re-elected, this will be his 13th year on the board.

Hassan told Blank Slate Media his main goal in handling the cost of multiple child sex abuse lawsuits against the district is to avoid piercing the tax cap.

He said working as a trustee is his way of giving back to the community.

“In my opinion, you’re obligated to give back,” Hassan said. “I’m a firm believer in people have either time or money, but they should not be obligated to give both. I don’t have a lot of money, so I would rather give back my time to the community.”

If re-elected, Hassan said he hopes to continue his work on finalizing a $25 million bond for capital improvements to the district. He said he is also focused on fostering a holistic approach to education by implementing additional mental health programs for students and hiring additional school counselors.

“I’ve been on the board for 12 years. We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in the last 12 years,” Hassan said. “If people are happy with the way things have changed for the district over the last 12 years, the academic standards that we’ve presented for the district, then vote for me. If people want a change or are not happy with the way things are going, then vote another way.”

Bono said she is ready to see some changes on the board.

The former New York City school teacher has lived in Albertson for 22 years. She has three children who have graduated from the district and one who is currently a 10th grader.

Bono said that if elected trustee, one of her goals is to mitigate traffic issues around the schools, especially the middle school. However, she said her main goal is to spark change amongst the board of education itself.

“I also feel it’s important that people on the board, that there’s a turnaround and new blood,” Bono said. “Currently, we have five members that have been there for 12 years, plus. And none of them have children on the board and I think that’s important as well in order to be relevant and be able to connect with the community.”

Bono later acknowledged that she misspoke and one member has been there for only seven years.

Bono said her biggest concern for the district is keeping the tax levy increase under the tax cap.

She said she is happy with the current proposed budget and the way the administration is handling Child Victims Act costs. She said she does not want to see major changes in how the board handles the budget and programming.

Bono said she has been extremely involved in the district for 20 years, including acting as the president of nearly every district PTA at some point.

“I think my reputation and my work that I’ve put into the district speaks for itself. Everyone who knows me knows that I’ve given 110% to Herricks since the minute I walked into the school district,” Bono said. “I have extremely close relationships with the administration, the teachers, the parents. My reach is very far.”

Meanwhile, five new candidates are competing for the remaining seat on the board.

Ravinder Ratra is a business analyst who has lived in Albertson for 25 years. He has two sons who graduated from the district in 2006 and 2010. He comes from a family of educators – his mother and brother are teachers and his sister is a school principal.

He said his biggest priority as a trustee would be to keep the district budget and tax levy as low as possible. He said the administration is wasting available resources in the community.

For example, he said, the board had a contract last year with a company to improve the Herricks image and branding. Ratra said this was an unnecessary expense.

He said his second priority would be to improve the district rating, which he thinks is lagging. He would do this by trying to get ahead of trends, such as artificial intelligence, which he would encourage to be implemented in classrooms.

When it comes to the budget, Ratra said he did not want to go into the details of how the district is handling lawsuit costs because they are unavoidable and better left to legal experts. He said he does not want to pierce the tax cap as a trustee but would consider it if necessary for programming.

“I came here in this country with $22…and it is time for me to give back,” said Ratra, who volunteers with various Albertson civic associations. “My motive is only to help people.”

Gupta is a North Hills resident who graduated from the Herricks district. He has a 12th grader in the district and a son who graduated from Herricks in 2018 and now serves as a naval officer.

Gupta runs two family-owned children’s education centers with his wife in New Hyde Park and Hicksville called Smart Brain International. He said they have been successfully running the business for 21 years and understand education is not a “one-path type of approach,” but often more nuanced.

The resident said his biggest concern for the district is intolerance toward diverse students and families. He said he has heard negative comments from community members about changes in the neighborhood when it comes to increased diversity.

While Gupta acknowledged that addressing these tolerance issues is not an overnight fix, he said he wants to create an environment where people begin talking about diversity more often and encourage small group conversations to take place.

Regarding the district’s proposed budget and how the administration is handling costs due to child sex abuse lawsuits filed under the Child Victims Act, Gupta said he would need to take a closer look at the budget before sharing his opinions.

If elected, he said he would not be averse to piercing the tax cap during his tenure as trustee, but there would need to be solid justification for doing so.

Gupta said he enjoys serving the district, and this trustee position is another way to continue that volunteer work. The North Hills resident is a firefighter and EMT in Albertson. His older son, who is now a naval officer, was also a firefighter and EMT, and his 17-year-old son in high school is a firefighter.

“It’s been a very long time being in this district and I know a lot of other people have moved out. I stayed and I love this place,” Gupta said. “I love the schools and I think it’s done wonders for my own children and it’s just something that I want to make sure that other people have that opportunity.”

Quraishi is a lifelong Nassau County resident. She is no stranger to the district, having lived in the Herricks district for nearly 40 years. She has three children in the Herricks district: one in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school.

“As a physician from Northwell, I am uniquely poised to help facilitate [the partnership between Northwell and Herricks],” Quraishi said. “The mental health needs of our students is also a very, very big concern and I want to make sure we’re providing all the resources that we can to help our kids be the best that they can be.”

If elected, she said her goals include increasing the number of security guards for students’ safety and security, improving cybersecurity efforts, and improving the district’s partnership with Northwell.

The physician also works as an assistant professor at the Hofstra School of Medicine. She said education is her favorite part of her job.

She said her biggest concern for the district is growing enrollment, a financial stressor that she would hope to combat by maximizing state aid and federal grants.

Quraishi said she supports the board’s adopted 2024-2025 budget and believes the board is handling lawsuit costs well.

Lo has been a Williston Park resident for six years. While Lo works as a financial adviser, his wife owns a coffee shop in Williston Park, where he said local parents often come in and speak about their experience as district parents. The couple has two young children in the Herricks district.

If elected, his goals include improving school facilities, especially at the middle school, replacing outdated sports uniforms, lending his financial background to budget conversations, improving communication efforts between the board and district parents and better supporting district-wide sports and arts programs. He said he wants to be a conduit for these district parents and their concerns.

“I do have two very young children in the district so we are going to have a number of years here,” Lo said. “Being in a position that we do have this establishment within the community, it allows us to really listen to a lot of the local parents all around, not just our elementary school, but elsewhere. The middle and high school.”

Lo said some of his biggest concerns for the district include CVA costs and student access to social media. Lo said he thinks the board is doing a good job of handling lawsuit costs. He said he worries about cyberbullying and the spread of misinformation online among students.

“I think residents should vote for me because…I am here for the long haul,” Lo said. “I want to improve the experience for our students and, of course, hopefully the teachers as well.”

Efforts to reach Stuart were unavailing.

An issue top of mind for candidates is the large year-to-year increase included in the proposed budget.

Herricks School District board members adopted a proposed 2024-2025 budget of $141,710,364, which represents a 5.2% increase from the 2023-2024 budget of $134,719,970.

The proposed tax levy increase is 2.38%, which is within the state tax cap. Superintendent Tony Sinanis said the district’s average tax levy over the past seven years was 1.78%.

Board members said the larger-than-usual budget increase was due in part to the cost of settling child sex abuse claims against the district filed under the Child Victims Act.

When the board adopted the proposed 2024-2025 budget, the district’s original state aid projection was $27 million. According to the administration, state aid will provide around 20% of total district revenues in the 2024-2025 budget.

Rutkoske said the district will receive $100,000 more in state aid under the recently approved state budget than under Gov. Kathy Hochul’s initial proposal. The assistant superintendent for business said the administration has not made changes to the budget due to the slight bump in aid.

Residents will vote on the budget and elect two trustees on May 21 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Herricks Community Center, 999 Herricks Rd., New Hyde Park.

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here