Both seats on the Great Neck Board of Education up for election this year feature contested races, with President Rebecca Sassouni the lone incumbent seeking to retain her spot.
Sassouni is running for re-election to the board against challenger Niloufar Tabari.
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.
Sassouni, who was first elected to the board in 2017, announced she will be running for re-election as a trustee in March. The Board of Education elects a trustee to the post of president each year. Being re-elected to the board, she said, would give her an opportunity to continue to serve the school district that her own children have attended.
“I have abiding love and gratitude to this community and also to this school district,” Sassouni told Blank Slate Media in March. “And I’m very appreciative that my family enjoys the pluralism here.”
Sassouni 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. The board’s decision-making and collaborative work, she said, is something she lauded during the interview.
“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.”
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.”
Tabari is a speech-language pathologist who has lived in Great Neck for the past two decades. An executive board member of the Saddle Rock PTA, Tabari has four children enrolled in the public school system.
Efforts to reach Tabari and Zhang were unsuccessful.
Having a board member with integrity and commitment, she said in an online video, will help the school community continue to meet the high standards set.
“As a candidate for trustee for the Great Neck Board of Education, I will bring both of these characteristics to the board,” Tabari said. “And protect the community that I not only admire but that I am a part of.”
Great Neck’s diversity, Tabari said, brings out a wide array of opinions, but preserving the quality of education for students remains the main goal for her. Prioritizing the needs of staff members and educators, she said, is also something the board will continue to do if she is elected, Tabari said.
“Our community deserves a board that continues to raise the bar and not just stick to the status quo,” she said. “Now, more than ever, we need people from this community who care and are invested in this community to protect and encourage this community.”
Tabari, in 2021, 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 and prompts them to ask the younger white girl if she was in any danger.
“Why teach children that all white people are racist,” Tabari asked the board. “Instead of teaching children about commonalities, it divides children along racial and religious lines and pits them against one another.”
Tabari, in another social media video, said she promises to “unify and not divide” if elected to the school board.
“As a teacher, I appreciate the struggle of wanting to bring out the best in our children while also respecting the inherent boundaries of our role as educators,” Tabari said.
Chan has served on a variety of school district organizations for roughly 15 years. Those include serving as co-president of the United Parent-Teacher Council, chairperson of the council’s Total Community Involvement Committee and part of executive committees in South High, South Middle and Saddle Rock.
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.”
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.”
Zhang, like Chan, has experience serving in school community groups such as the United Parent-Teacher Council, the E.M. Baker School PTO and the Shared Decision Making Committee. A mother of two children in the school district, Chan is a state-certified public accountant with more than 15 years of tax auditing and compliance.
If elected, Zhang would push for improving school safety, further try to engage the community, advocate for the needs of teachers and students and continue to promote educational achievements for everyone attending Great Neck schools, according to campaign literature posted online.
A candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters was scheduled to take place on May 7, but Nancy Sherman, the organization’s chair, said Tabari and Zhang did not respond to the league so it was canceled on Tuesday.
The election will take place on May 16 from 7 a.m.- 10 p.m.