Voting to support our schools and libraries is always important, but this year’s election for two trustees of Great Neck Public Schools is especially so because the board will be asked to hire a new superintendent.
The role of superintendent is crucial to setting the culture of the district and implementing its mission, priorities, and values, and fostering morale and positive energy of staff that can attract and retain top professionals.
But now we are in the throes of a direct assault on public education such as we have never seen before.
In Great Neck, we are fortunate to have two well-qualified candidates who have volunteered to undertake the weighty responsibility overseeing an $272 million year-round enterprise with 1,500 employees, 6,900 students plus 2,000 in parochial and private schools and1,400 adult learners.
Rebecca Sassouni, a trustee since 2017 and current board president, is seeking re-election and Joanne Chan, a former UPTC-co-chair, is running for the seat being vacated by trustee Victor Shi. Both face opponents in the community.
Rebecca Sassouni is the first board president in memory to have to manage a newly contentious, emboldened faction determined to undermine the culture of civility and mutual respect that had been a hallmark of board meetings for decades – not that there weren’t disagreements and passionate issues. The distinguishing element of Great Neck Public Schools has been the many different ways each of the different stakeholders have had a means to engage, participate, have their ideas and issues heard.
In response to this new dynamic which bubbled up nationally (triggered by the “parents rights” reaction to COVID lockdowns and mandates), Sassouni set up a new 40-person advisory committee purposefully to bring together all voices on the spectrum, to come up with recommendations.
The school board has been responsive to the challenges facing our students – beefing up security as well as access to mental health and other supports, and providing academic intervention to help students who may have fallen behind.
Joanne Chan refers to her children (three of the four who have already graduated and are out in the world) as “products of Great Neck Public Schools.” She appreciates, as I do, all the opportunities our children have to fulfill their full potential and be successful in the world – all children, from the highest achievers to those who struggle and need to find their own way of processing learning and expressing their ability.
“As a mother of four children who are products of GNPS, three graduates and one current student at South High, I understand the importance of protecting our public schools and I appreciate the tremendous value that our community has created,” Chan said in a statement. “Our schools prize high academic achievement as well as well-rounded, healthy, and intellectually curious students. We must strive to always improve our schools, but we must never take this great resource for granted as it is the bedrock of our community.”
She has devoted 20 years to the school district – at times, serving on all three PTOs of the schools her children were attending (VP at Saddle Rock, executive VP at South Middle and executive VP at South High), and for two years as co-president of UPTC.
Chan worked on community-building projects, including setting up the District Translation Project and ParentLink Emergency Messages so that important district communications would be available in English, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, and Spanish, and oversaw collaborations among various cultural groups, including SHAI and Great Neck Chinese Association. Importantly, she worked tirelessly to win passage of the 2017 bond after one defeat. Most recently, she served on the 40-member advisory committee which Sassouni set up to address the rip in the fabric of the community.
Indeed, what has been straining the fabric is a rip in the concept of community. That is what the new school board will have to address, even as it takes on the most critical responsibility of a board: hiring a new superintendent.
Asked her view of micromanaging teachers and curriculum and banning books, Chan, who has spent 20 years managing a medical practice, offered a telling response: Chan grew up in British Hong Kong, but her husband grew up in Mainland China.
“He was born during the Cultural Revolution. At age 5, he saw his classroom teacher being paraded in street with a high hat [of humiliation], then heard a gunshot. His family moved to America, my family in 1980s, when it was decided that Hong Kong would be returned to China. We moved to America for freedom. We believe we don’t want our kids to learn what ‘they’ want us to know. We believe there should be freedom of learning – no book ban.”
She agreed that a key reason Americans have been so successful is because of an education system that teaches critical thinking, problem solving and embraces individuality rather than “group think.”
“Knowledge is power,” she told me. “Why limit what kids are exposed to?”
While Sassouni has a record of standing for Great Neck’s public schools, her challenger, Niloufar Tabari, does not.
All that is known about Tabari is that she is a speech pathologist with four children in school and is involved in SEPTA and PTA. But she is most known for her comments to the October 20, 2021 school board meeting challenging the “appropriateness” of a book, “ If You Come Softly” by National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson about 15-year-ld star-crossed lovers, a boy who is black and a girl who is Jewish. Tabari also opposed masking and vaccination mandates during the pandemic. Multiple attempts to reach Tabari by phone and email were unavailing.
Chan is being challenged by Aili Zhang. We were unable to obtain any information or contact her in person.
How our schools function, the culture and opportunities for our students, even the ability of our district to attract the best teachers, administrators and yes, superintendent, come down to the choices made by the people we elect. And that begins with the choices we make at the ballot box.
I trust Rebecca Sassouni and Joanne Chan to make the important decisions to maintain the culture and the high achievement of our public schools.
To have your say in our schools and libraries, vote on Tues., May 16, 7 am–10 pm (info at 516-441-4007). View the proposed budget at www.greatneck.k12.ny.us/budget.