Chan, Sassouni discuss GN school district in candidate forum

Chan, Sassouni discuss GN school district in candidate forum
Great Neck Board of Education President Rebecca Sassouni, left, and candidate Joanne Chan, right. (Photos by Joseph D'Andrea)

By Joseph D’Andrea

Candidates Joanne Chan and Rebecca Sassouni participated in a candidate forum hosted by Reach Out America at the Inn at Great Neck Sunday in the run-up to the Great Neck Board of Education’s May 16 trustee election.

Sassouni, the board president, is running for re-election to the board as a trustee against challenger Niloufar Tabari. The Board of Education elects a trustee to the post of president each year.

The seat currently held by Trustee Jeff Shi is being contested by Joanne Chan and Aili Zhang. Shi withdrew his petitions to run again several weeks ago and said he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Although all four candidates vying for the two seats in the election were invited, only Chan and Sassouni were present. The reason for the other two candidates’ failure to attend was not addressed. 

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.”

Reviewing her educational background, Chan said she attended New York City public schools before going to college, where she studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate and later went on “to study a master’s in business administration at night, [where] I focused on finance and international business.”

She also noted her 24-year-long experience at her husband’s medical practice where her role is “to manage the budget, to hire people, and do performance reviews. When I found out that the job of the trustee is to hire the new superintendent and to watch the budget, I thought that I have some experience in doing similar things.”

With the process of choosing a new superintendent of schools currently being discussed by the board, both Chan and Sassouni commented on the importance of deciding on a qualified, experienced individual who can effectively communicate with the public, administrators and educators, and recognize the diverse talents of Great Neck students.

The board is seeking what Sassouni called “that visionary piece” in a new superintendent. “That is: what we look for [in] telling the story of Great Neck and the narration of the story that we tell ourselves as Great Neckers about what we believe about education,” she said.

Both candidates also spoke about how the proper allocation of funds is one of the most important matters a trustee should focus on.

“I believe that the public money that goes to public schools [should be used] for the public good,” Chan said. “That’s why I want to serve on the board of ed.”

She continued: “I think the biggest challenge of public education is how to be a good steward for the money that we collect on taxes. Ultimately, everything comes down to money, but how do we spend money wisely? Should there be more instructors? Should it be [used] more on extracurricular activities? Whatever the balance might be, we need to answer to our taxpayers…We need to be able to be accountable for the public, accountable for the taxpayers, and be able to meet all the needs of the different stakeholders.”

Chan also put an emphasis on building a stronger effort in the community to problem-solve.

“We’re all Great Neck residents and we all want the best for our kids. So, I think the first step to improve and make a positive change is to enhance communication.”

Sassouni echoed this sentiment, saying, “I think that the way we bring stakeholder groups together is to encourage dialogue across differences” by bringing an advisory group together.

“We learned a lot about different prioritizations that people make in their viewpoints on the schools,” Sassouni continued. “Another way is to just keep reassuring to anyone who listens that the schools are here to educate, but also are here to remain viewpoint-neutral. I think that we have unfortunately gotten caught up in this wave of personal narratives and these feelings that people are being excluded, when they really aren’t, [at least] not on purpose.”

Sassouni said the analytical skills she learned as an attorney have been helpful in her time as a board trustee, saying, “Understanding the size of your organization, the number of students, the number of employees, the different stakeholder groups that work for the district — all of these are also legal issues… I actually represent students with special education needs, students who get in trouble in school, tuition disputes and things of this nature.”

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 (UTPC) Total Community Involvement Committee in 2016, which oversees all the PTAs.

“During that time,” Chan said, “there was a bond referendum that had failed and I took it upon myself and my team to spread the word and make sure that the bond will pass in 2017.”

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.

She said she had decided to run to be a member of the Board of Education because of 2017’s bond referendum, which failed by over 100 votes.

“At that time, I was very involved in the parent leadership of the UTPC,” the Hofstra law school graduate said. “My involvement in the schools began over at the JFK Elementary School where I chaired Shared Decision Making, and my leadership advanced when I grew with my children at the Shared Decision Making committee at North Middle School and then the North High School. By 2017, I was chair of the Legislative Committee of the UPTC, on the executive board.”

The election for the Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education trustees will take place on May 16 from 7 a.m.- 10 a.m. Residents can find which of the four polling place locations (E.M. Baker School, Lakeville School, Saddle Rock School and South High School) where they will vote at

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