I feel like this has become a bit of a refrain, but the Jewish Week has another awful attempt at journalism in this week's issue. One would think that with them coming as late as they do to the Lawrence Jew vs. Jew saga, they would have ample time to actually get the story right. Alas, one would be wrong in thinking that. Their take on the story
is so totally one-sided, poorly sourced and reported, and just plain wrong
, that the mind boggles how this piece can actually be considered an example of reporting. Let's fisk:
The Lawrence school district in the Five Towns has become an increasingly favorable place for Orthodox families to raise children: private school students, including those who attend the yeshivas where the majority of Lawrence families send their children, have long been the beneficiaries of public services like transportation and special education above and beyond what New York State mandates.
Um, yes. The district has become an increasingly favorable place for Orthodox families to raise children - but not because my children are "the beneficiaries of public services like transportation and special education above and beyond what New York State mandates". The reasons are more along the lines of affordable homes (as compared to homes in NYC), great Kosher shopping, and numerous shuls and Yeshivas. But I can pretty much guarantee you that no Orthodox homebuyer chooses Lawrence for the busing. I will also add that perhaps the district offers special education and transportation at levels above the state mandate, but this district also provides far above the state mandate for every public school child. And we're talking FAR above the state mandate. So there's nothing unusual about those few services entitled to private school children being provided in a somewhat equitable fashion.
But the thriving Orthodox population in this Long Island enclave is also the catalyst of a major, growing rift in the community, pitting Orthodox yeshiva families who want to make use of public services against liberal Jews and non-Jewish families whose children attend public schools they fear lack the necessary money and care to ensure their survival.
They may fear they "lack the necessary money and care to ensure their survival", but the article fails to point out that the per/student spending in this district remains among the highest in the state. Hard to make the case that the public schools are being bled dry - with the Orthodox as the "catalyst" for the rift, no less.
Tensions have intensified over the last few weeks after a school board election in May landed five Orthodox trustees on the board of seven total members, increasing the majority the Orthodox had previously enjoyed and alarming community members who fear for the future of the public school system.
Really. Tensions have intensified in recent weeks? I don't know about that. As a matter of fact, most people I have spoken with - on either side of the divide - would like to put this sorry episode behind the community and move on. I certainly do not sense intensified tensions over that which was palpable in the period leading up to the elections.
“It’s been extremely divisive having a school board whose primary interests are their children in private schools,” said Penny Schuster, the parent of an eighth-grader at Lawrence Middle School and former president of the Parent Teacher Association there. She added that public school families are fleeing the district, which she anticipates having trouble retaining qualified teachers. “Their interests are not our interests, and that’s a very grave concern.”
It shouldn't need to be said that Ms. Schuster's (mis)characterization of the board's "primary interests" are her own opinion, and far from a statement of fact. In addition, I'll believe that teachers are "fleeing" the district when I see it. As of right now, the teachers in this district still enjoy among the highest salaries in Nassau County.
Nahum Marcus, one of the newly elected Orthodox board members who will start serving July 1, disagreed.
“The bottom line is the district is there to serve all children,” he said. “There has to be an excellent public school system, the best we can offer those children. ... At the same time the district has the responsibility to serve children who go to private school.”
How any thinking, fair person can disagree with Marcus's statement above that all district children should be served equitably is beyond my comprehension. Yet apparently some do.
Schuster, who is Jewish, countered Marcus’ assessment. “I absolutely think [the board’s] primary interest is not the public school district. It’s not their charge.”
Again, solely Ms. Schuster's opinion.
In the last several years, the demographics in District 15 — which includes the towns of Atlantic Beach, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Lawrence and Woodmere — have tipped, with the number of private school students outnumbering those in public schools; thus a board composed of mainly private school parents is not an anomaly here. There are currently around 3,900 private school students in the district, mainly attending yeshivas, and 3,400 public school students, according to the Lawrence School District Transportation Department, which monitors how many students it transports.
Along with the influx of Orthodox families come questions about the direction of this community that citizens say have led to ugly encounters between neighbors.
“It’s horrible walking the streets in this community,” said one observer, who asked not to be named, of the rivalry public and private school families face. The observer recounted chaotic school board meetings and children insulting each other after hearing slurs from their parents. “The tension can be cut with a knife.”
Uh, any evidence? Any specific allegations of such behavior? I will admit to having been present at board meetings when names were called - but I will tell you, they weren't from any of the Orthodox who were present. I will also say that I don't know where in the district the anonymous "observer" who spoke off the record lives precisely, but thank God I don't see walking the same streets as my non-Orthodox or non-Jewish neighbors as being in any way "horrible". I guess for some the prospect of coexistence and the compromises that come with it are "horrible". Sad situation for our Mr. Anonymous and his ilk.
Marcus, the new board member, agreed.That
“What’s amazing to me is [it’s fine] when you talk to your neighbor, but when it comes to district issues, it’s like World War III has erupted.”
I can agree with. I am careful to discuss everything and anything with my friends and neighbors who send their children to public school - but
the situation with the school board. I'd like to keep our relationship friendly, and I have a feeling that broaching that topic remains a bad idea to that goal.
In the run-up to the recent elections, the conflict between the two sides played out in the local newspaper, when the group Advocates for the Lawrence Public Schools took out an ad in the local Nassau Herald asking, “Should the Lawrence Public School District Be Run By An Orthodox Majority?” The ad supported candidates Pamela Greenbaum, Maribel Cancelliere and Andrew Levey and opposed the ticket of David Sussman, Nahum Marcus and Solomon Blisko who ultimately won the election; Blisko and Marcus are Orthodox and send their children to yeshivas, while Sussman has children in public school.
Is the Jewish Week referring to the ads
that every local political figure condemned
as discriminatory and divisive? The ads that the newspaper who run them basically agreed were a mistake, and issued a long apology
for running them? Perhaps that would have been somewhat relevant to the issue.
The same observer said that counter ads were placed in area Orthodox newspapers, and that even people who had made aliyah were enlisted to vote, calling into question whether the new board had indeed been elected by a transparent democratic process.
Yay, it's Mr. Anonymous Observer again. Did Mr. Anonymous Observer give the Jewish Week any examples of the "counter ads"? Anything that would indicate their obviously inflammatory nature? Did the Jewish Week make any attempt to back up the claim? Obviously not, because the ads didn't exist. Every ad that I saw for the candidates in question was clearly about the issues that affect this district's children. And is their any evidence that people who had made aliyah were enlisted to vote? I am aware that much was made over an ad that attempted to recruit voters who were living in Israel - but it clearly only mentioned students and other temporary visitors, who are certainly entitled to vote under election law. Nothing untransparent, shady, or thwarting of the democratic process about that.
Community members worry that the problems already plaguing the public schools are bound to increase with the new board. They mention out-of-date technology, classrooms with falling tiles and cuts to middle school lunch periods. A $92.6 million budget that passed easily in a community vote has also been widely criticized as too low, with a less than 1 percent increase that many felt should have been closer to 4 or 5 percent.
Again, it might be widely criticized among public school parents, but this budget still puts this district among the highest per/student spending in the state. Hard to make the case that the district public schools are being robbed.
One issue sparking particular ire is the $600,000 allotted for pre-kindergarten busing — being offered for the first time next year — which will largely serve yeshiva students. While critics on the side of the public schools feel the allocation is too low and doesn’t allow for supervision, board members feel the money will more than cover the expense.
Let's count the mistakes here. First this is hardly the first time pre-K busing is being offered in this district. Not only was it offered to all district children years ago before being cut in the face of the contingency budgets, it has been provided this year, by the district, to all pre-K public school students. So the only students who benefit from the referendum may well be private school students - but that is because they were, in a show of inequitable allotment of services, not provided with the pre-K busing that public school students were given.
John Fitzsimmons, superintendent of the Lawrence school district, reiterated that the school board’s primary responsibility is to the public school children, but said he could not yet predict whether the new board would indeed have those students foremost in mind when making decisions.
“It does create some potential challenges for the community,” said Fitzsimmons of the school board composition. “But the only time it becomes a problem is if the community begins to feel the interests of public school children aren’t being met. [Then] they’ll voice that concern.”
I disagree. The public school community did voice their concerns, in a divisive and ugly manner, with the prospect of an "Orthodox board" - and they did so well in advance of their fears being realized. That's the problem with unfounded fears. The hysteria they cause is often far worse that the actual subject of the fears themselves.
People on both sides of the debate agreed that it is particularly upsetting to see observant Jews fighting secular Jews.
“I respect everybody’s right to worship the way they want to, but that’s very different from ‘let’s now rule your school board,” said Schuster.
Um, what? I agree that it is sad to see neighbors fighting - whatever their observance levels, but my own observance levels have nothing to do with my interests in seeing this district run in a fiscally responsible manner, with equitable services distributed to all
district children. It's depressing to see people resisting such fair treatment.
Marcus insists that is not his intention.
“God forbid, I would want to hurt the public school system,” he said. “We get along as neighbors, in the stores, in the streets. Why can’t we get along in the schools?”
Isn't it about time we got along? (With no help from the Jewish Week, of course).