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Longtime incumbents challenged in Lawrence School District

Voting by mail deadline is June 9 at 5 p.m.

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School district voting on proposed budgets, board trustees and propositions will have a completely different feel as there is no in-person voting this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. All voting will be done by mail-in ballot as mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In the Lawrence School District, the proposed budget is $102,490,053, a .04 increase over the current $102 million fiscal plan. Both the tax levy — the amount of money the district collects through property taxes — and state aid remains flat. The tax levy is $85,954,300 and as of now state aid is expected to be $12,880,421, same as the present budget.

Cuomo said that there could be cuts to state aid because of the financial strain of the crisis. Possibly as much as 20 percent. But nothing is yet to be finalized. “We are ready for that,” said Jeremy Feder, Lawrence’s assistant superintendent for business and operation. “A budget is fluid.”

Two challengers in trustee race

Incumbents and longtime Board of Education Trustees Murray Forman and Dr. Asher Mansdorf are being opposed for the three-year terms by Amil Virani and Asher Matathias, respectively.

Virani, 18, a 2019 graduate of Lawrence High School, attends Queens College and is majoring in finance with a minor in political science. He has been attending Lawrence board meetings for more than a year. He lives in  Cedarhurst.

“I was inspired to run to give back to the community,” Virani said. “When I was student body vice president and going to board meetings, I was seeing things that were not right. There is a lack of transparency, and the teachers going without a new contract. I think we could dedicate ourselves to doing a lot better.”

He said that the current board is disconnected from the community as illustrated by what he perceives to be a lack of concern for getting a new teachers contract done and the laying off of 102 employees and furloughing five other staff members amid the pandemic.

Having a sister attending school in the district, Virani noted what he thinks is the “systematic failure” of the district with its remote learning because instead of using Google Classroom, a platform many teachers and students were familiar with, the district used the iTutor platform which did have numerous issues at the onset of the distance learning. “The non-English speaking households are getting hurt the most,” he said. “We will see long-term damage.”

He said that the class size cap needs to be retained. It is a recurring issue in the teacher contract talks. And for him he said it is personal. “I would not be sitting here if I didn’t have the small class sizes I had in high school,” Virani said. The personal relationships I developed with teachers helped me succeed as a student.”

Virani added that if elected, he promises more open and accessible communication with residents “There is no one holding them accountable,” he said, referring to the board.

Forman, 59, a private investor who lives in Lawrence, is running for his sixth term. “I am more enthusiastic than ever seeing the progress of the district and I want to build on the strong foundation that I have been a part of in the past 15 years,” he said, in explaining why he wants another term.

Currently the board president, Forman said that the district has made “dramatic strides in its educational outcomes by all our students,” and the board he has served with has “reversed the non-investment in the physical facilities” and whether its Hurricane Sandy or the pandemic he is a “proven leader who can handle any challenge and doing it with an eye toward fiscal responsibility.”

He defends the staff layoffs and furloughs as part of the pledge Board of Education trustees take to not “gift taxpayer funds.” Forman said that because of the pandemic, paying the employees was “not appropriate if the work is not there.”

He pointed out that because of the CARES Act and the manner the federal and state government is supporting people who are eligible for unemployment, the layoffs and furloughs were “fiscally responsible” for the school district and he anticipated a return to normal staffing levels when school buildings are allowed to reopen. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act addresses the nation’s economic fallout from the pandemic.  

Being part of the board that has been negotiating a new teachers contract for more than nine years, Forman said that before the pandemic struck there had been what he called “robust negotiations” for nearly nine months. “It’s not really up to the board, it’s up to the teachers,” he said. “Unfortunately, what became apparent while the district moved on virtually every issue, unfortunately there was no movement on the part of the union.”   

For the seventh consecutive year Matathias, 76, is running for the board. Declining to answer the Herald’s “trite questions” as the Woodmere resident described them, he referred the Herald to an email whicht highlighted his platform that shows concern for immigrant students that must mow learn remotely and the need for a new teachers’ contract. The other half dozen items have either been addressed by the district or could be considered verbal assaults against Lawrence officials.        

Mansdorf, 67, a retired dentist, is the board’s vice president and running for his seventh term. He said that “many good things are falling into place, the district is moving forward and we are correcting issues that had been overlooked,” are his reasons for wanting another three-year term.

He points to increasing the educational opportunities for all district students, rising graduation rates, creating safer campuses and renovating the Broadway Campus auditorium as the most recent achievements. “I really enjoy watching the kids succeed,” Mansdorf said, adding that the district’s financial health is also strong.

Defending the layoff and furlough decision, he highlighted the same arguments as Forman, noting that the contrast between teachers who have roles and the cleaners and the aides who have no role at this time. Showing an optimism not usually present, Mansdorf said that the teachers’ contract situation will be settled. “We’re incredibly close,” he said.

Other propositions, PPL

Voters are also being asked to approve a Building Capital Reserve Fund not to exceed $4 million. The purpose is to finance reconstruction, renovation and the equipment for infrastructure improvements, including air conditioning at the high school, classroom and cafeteria renovations at the middle school and parking and playground enhancements at the Lawrence Primary School. 

Peninsula Public Library is proposing a $3.112 million budget. An increase of 1.8 percent from the current spending plan. Trustee Audrian Gray, an Inwood resident, is running unchallenged for another five-year term.

Ballots must be received in the Office of the District Clerk 2 Reilly Road, Cedarhurst, N.Y., 11516 no later than 5 p.m. on June 16. There will also be a ballot drop box by the main entrance of the high school at the same address.