Sassouni retains spot on Great Neck school board, defeats challenger Tabari

Sassouni retains spot on Great Neck school board, defeats challenger Tabari
Great Neck Board of Education President Rebecca Sassouni, left, and newly-elected trustee Joanne Chan, right. (Photos by Joseph D'Andrea)

Great Neck Board of Education President Rebecca Sassouni decisively defeated challenger Niloufar Tabari, in a hotly contested race for trustee and the school budget passed by a wide margin on Tuesday.

Sassouni received 4,008 votes compared to Tabari’s 2,686.

District resident Joanne Chan also defeated Aili Zhang in the race for a vacant seat previously held by Trustee Jeff Shi, who did not run for re-election this year. Chan received 4,011 votes while Zhang received 2,620.

The Board of Education elects a trustee to the post of president each year.

The district’s $272.1 million budget was approved with 4,259 votes in favor and 2,261 votes against.

The Great Neck Library’s $10 million budget also passed, receiving 3,809 votes in favor and 2,549 votes against.

Great Neck has been home to Sassouni for 29 years, and her four children all attended Great Neck public schools. Sassouni, a lawyer practicing out of Carle Place, said she does not handle any matters in Great Neck.

Sassouni, who was first elected to the board in 2017, said she was pleased with some of the practices adopted by the board since she took over as president in 2021.

These include the live-streaming of board meetings to make them more easily accessible. She lauded the board’s decision-making and collaborative work during an interview with Blank Slate Media earlier this year.

“I think that our decision-making has become much more deliberative and more process-oriented, which I’m very proud of,” Sassouni said. “We are working together very collaboratively and very collegially in executive session and in public.”

A mother of four, Chan has been a resident of Great Neck for 20 years, volunteering for 15 years in the Parent Teacher Associations of Saddle Rock Elementary School, Great Neck South Middle and South High Schools, and became co-president of the United Parent Teacher Council’s Total Community Involvement Committee in 2016, which oversees all the PTAs.

Chan addressed the many issues the board faces, including the hiring of a new superintendent and negotiating contracts with Great Neck’s teachers, in a letter to Blank Slate Media.

She touted her two decades of office management and Master’s from NYU, saying her educational and professional skills would serve the district well if elected.

“The board must, as always, continue to be responsible for the budget that governs all of our schools,” Chan said. “All of this requires a deep understanding of how our schools operate and should not be left to someone who has never held a leadership position within our schools.”

The election leadup included discussions about banning books, the divisiveness of the Great Neck community and the curriculum in the school district.

When asked if she believes there is a sense of divisiveness, Sassouni said she tries to remain “as judicious as possible” and promote the education of students rather than combatting certain notions.

“I try to remain fair, give people a chance to be heard and feel respected,” Sassouni said. “It’s actually very exciting to behold and really very beautiful when you look at it and see all the diversity we have here.”

In 2021, Tabari expressed concerns with a book entitled “If You Come Softly” about an interracial teenage couple. A passage in the book depicts an older white couple staring at the interracial couple who ask the younger white girl if she was in any danger.

In her letter to Blank Slate Media, Tabari said she is against book banning “in any form” and addressed the divisiveness she feels is prevalent in the community.

“I personally believe that the diversity of this community needs to be celebrated and not used to divide and hurt,” Tabari said in the letter. “No matter how diverse this community is, we share one singular goal: best-in-class education for our children.”

Candidates Joanne Chan and Rebecca Sassouni participated in a candidate forum hosted by Reach Out America at the Inn at Great Neck on May 7. Zhang and Tabari were invited to participate but did not attend the event.

Sassouni spoke about their absence: “It’s regrettable that the person who’s running against me has not seen fit to show at a point where I could actually be in her presence so that the public would have an opportunity to hear both voices and compare experiences or the lack thereof.”

Promoting Great Neck’s diversity rather than letting the “culture wars” divide the community, Chan said, is paramount for not just the school board but for the entire school district community.

Chan noted how far people travel to attend Great Neck’s schools and the need to continue preserving that “world-class education.”

“We must not allow culture wars to distract us from the important work of providing our children with the exceptional education that Great Neck is known for,” Chan said. “A community that silences its teachers does not prepare its students for the real world, which is large, diverse, and complex.”

The school district budget is a $10.7 million increase from the current year’s $261.4 million budget adopted last year.

The 2023-24 tax levy is $229.5 million, an increase of $6.8 million or 3.07% from the current year’s. The district is on track to spend more than $40,400 per student based on the approved budget and projected 2023-24 enrollment figures from the district.

The library budget is $358,939, a 3.7%, increase from last year’s $9.7 million budget.  Total salaries increased by more than $253,000 and employee benefits and taxes increased by nearly $150,000, the two main driving factors for the 3.7% increase.

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