Malverne school budget sparks racial dispute

Black faculty cut incites public outcry at board meeting


The Malverne Board of Education faced major discord at its March 11 meeting over the school district’s planned layoff of a black teacher in its 2014-15 budget, and the meeting concluded with one fewer board member in the room.

Beatrice Bayley, president of the Lakeview branch of the NAACP, said at the meeting that the district’s proposed spending plan, which was introduced at its Feb. 25 budgetary session, included cutbacks to the business program that would reduce its faculty from 1.8 to 1.0 full-time teachers. The projected .8 staff reduction, according to Bayley, represents Sherwyn Besson, an African-American teacher who was first hired as a high school guidance counselor in 2004 and later sued administrators, alleging racial discrimination. Besson, Bayley said, is the last black male educator hired by the district in the past 10 years.

“What you are doing is retaliating against someone who has always spoken up for the sake of offering a true and lasting education of our children,” Bayley told the board. “We are asking that you restore the business department that is much needed for global competition and recruit for teachers that more closely resemble your student population.

“I was told that the black kids don’t volunteer for leadership positions,” she added. “Is it because they are not exposed to blacks in leadership positions? Well, of course it is! Kids mirror what they see. If they cannot see it, they can’t be it. Simple as that.”

Bayley also said the district did not reserve funds for business electives or a black history class in next year’s budget, but instead allocated money for other courses, such as a half-year astronomy class.

In response to Bayley’s statement, Trustee Jack Tulley said he did not see any reason for the district to fund a black history class in its spending plan, and suggested that members of the Lakeview NAACP offer such courses while administrators educate students in other subjects.

Tulley also said that Malverne High’s Black History Club consists of a minority of young black men, its membership currently standing at about 29 female to 3 male students.

“For years — and this has been hell for years — I just hear constant criticism,” he added. “I’ve never heard something constructive and positive, no matter what this district does — it is never enough, it never has been enough, it’s always negative, it’s always negative.”

Following Tulley’s counterpoint, Trustee Michael Taylor — the only African-American board member present at the meeting — said that he has been “dealt more knives than somebody in the circus,” alluding to the perceived lack of black role models for the district’s student body since he was elected to the school board two years ago.

“Everything that somebody says when they get up to that table is not a lie, and everything somebody says behind this table is not a lie,” said Taylor. “If you got a solid plan, you got a solid foundation, let’s make it work — because right now, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to get what you get, and what we’re getting right now is nothing. Nobody’s going to realize that in order for this to work, forget about black, forget about white … if you don’t spend money on education, we will fail. If money’s going to be spent on anything, it should be spent on education until we go broke, because that’s the only way to stop the ignorance that’s been going on over here for years!”

Taylor added, “We don’t have to vote on that now, so I can leave,” before he collected his belongings and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

Neither Tulley nor Taylor could be reached for comment.

Later in the meeting, parents and residents voiced their concerns about the district’s apparent lack of interest in hiring minority teachers. Michele Reed, a graduate of Malverne High whose two children are enrolled in the district, said that the problem has lingered in the district since the mid-1980s despite her own recommendations of educators to administrators.

“It’s important that children of all races have people that look like them in their life — not just at home, I’m talking about all aspects of their life,” Reed said. “The real issue that we have is that we need to sit down, all of us, and have a real conversation. Why is it that we don’t have any minority teachers [in] positions that are getting tenured that look like me and my children and everybody else who’s currently not sitting here?”

Superintendent Dr. James Hunderfund later told the Herald that the district has hired many black staff members since Besson — who, along with two other black educators, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against high school and district administrators in 2011, alleging that white employees were treated more favorably. Hunderfund said that those hires included eight administrators and one high school guidance counselor. He explained that the district adheres to state mandates when deciding on faculty cuts, which he said would be felt in every department next year due to limited state funding.

“Our perspective is that we have to follow the law, which says if there’s cutbacks, the least senior person in that department … needs to be let go if you reduce the number of teachers you need,” he said. “If you’re the last hired, you’re the first out — you can’t pick and choose.”

Hunderfund also said that black students comprise 60 percent of the district’s student body, and that administrators have strived to recruit black educators from a very small pool compared to other schools, noting that only 2 percent of the teachers that are hired on Long Island are black.

As of press time, the Herald had not received a response to an inquiry for records detailing faculty hires in recent years.

Hunderfund said that the district’s 2014-15 strategic plan is currently in its developmental stage, and that administrators would invite constructive input from the community, as long as residents make their case reasonably at budgetary sessions. “You have to be a little flexible as we go down the line,” he said, “and everyone’s opinion is welcome, but you have to be civil.”