After the East Meadow Board of Education outlined its proposed 2018-19 budget on March 22, it approved an 11th-hour ballot proposition that has caused contention among members and voters.
If passed, Proposition Three, as it was dubbed, would alter the board election process. Under the current voting system, new candidates name the incumbents they want to run against. The new method, at-large voting, would pit all candidates against one another for all open seats.
Board members and residents voiced their views on the system at an April 19 public meeting. Board President Scott Eckers said he supported the proposal as a way of assuaging the “animosity” and “mudslinging” he has seen during previous election cycles. “There’s no reason we should have to target our neighbors,” he said.
The board has been considering the alternative for almost a year, despite adding it to the March 22 agenda without the knowledge of four trustees, according to Eckers.
Trustees Marcee Rubinstein, Brian O’Flaherty, Joseph Parisi and Alisa Baroukh all said they were surprised by the ballot proposition. “The proper protocol is for all agenda items to be known by all board members before the start of a meeting,” Rubinstein wrote in a letter to the Herald that was published on April 19. She continued, “This action was divisive and not in the best interests of the community, which deserves full transparency.”
Vice President Matthew Melnick supported the board’s decision, and in a letter that was published alongside Rubinstein’s, he wrote, “We’ve made zero decisions for [the community] as a board.”
Letters in opposition to the board’s decision came to the Herald from Helen Meittinis, a district resident who is active in several community organizations, and Leon Campo and Frank Saracino, both former superintendents. Both letters criticized the board for not providing research into at-large voting before adding it to the May 15 ballot.
“On this board, we’ve always done our research,” said Trustee Brian O’Flaherty, who agreed with Meittinis, Campo and Saracino. “It’s the board’s job to do the research, not the voters.”
O’Flaherty spoke with representatives of the Nassau County branch of the NAACP, which has been vocal about its opposition to at-large voting on the national and local levels.
“At-large methods of election are often discriminatory because they . . . prevent voters of color from electing their candidates of choice where they are not the majority in the jurisdiction,” the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund states.
The NAACP maintains that many school boards that have used at-large voting have faced legal repercussions since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which prevents discriminatory voting practices.
A recent example is the East Ramapo School District, which was sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union last November on the grounds that its at-large election process prevented black and Latino voters from electing board members.
According to Eckers, the East Meadow School District relied on at-large voting for 135 years before the construction of East Meadow High School, when the number of trustees on the board jumped from three to seven. That year the district changed its election format to designated-seat races. It was the same year that the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Melnick said, however, that he does not believe discrimination would be an issue in East Meadow — that it “is not what we face in our community.” East Ramapo comprises separate, smaller districts that each put forth a candidate for the school board election. Rather than each district having representation on the board, however, at-large voting puts the minority districts at a proportional disadvantage.
Although this is not the case in East Meadow, Campo said that this kind of voting could still deceive voters. “It sounds like we’re playing nice in the sandbox,” he said, adding, however, that interest groups and political parties could put forth multiple candidates to secure a seat on the board and push their agenda.
Eckers said that in East Meadow, he believes that voters would focus solely on candidates’ ideas. “I believe that everybody running for the board this year is a nice person,” he said, “And I’d like to see an election when we focus on the issues and not on each other.”
At the end of the April 19 meeting, the board voted on removing the proposition from the ballot and reintroducing it to the community after establishing a committee to conduct more research. Three voted in favor of its removal, but four voted against it.
Residents will vote on Proposition Three on May 15, in addition to the school and library budgets and Proposition Two, which would create the district’s first capital reserve fund.