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Showdown Over Orthodox ‘Control’ in 5 Towns School Board Vote

Voters in the Long Island village of Lawrence go to the polls on Tuesday, March 12, in highly-charged school board election that pits a slate of three Orthodox Jewish incumbents against a slate of challengers including a non-Orthodox Jew and two non-Jews.

The seven-member board currently includes six Orthodox Jews.

The village of Lawrence had a population of 6,522 people in 2,113 households in the 2000 Census. The Lawrence school district, which includes the village of Lawrence and parts of neighboring Atlantic Beach, Cedarhurst and Long Beach, has 3,190 students in its public schools. Another 4,000 children in the district attend private schools, mostly Orthodox day schools and yeshivas.

A federal lawsuit filed against the school district by a group of parents in August 2009 (read about it here), alleged that the board had violated the First Amendment rights of parents and children, having “unlawfully made laws and public policies regarding the establishment of religion.” The plaintiff’s attorney, Rob Agostisi, told Newsday last year that the six Orthodox members of the board all send their children to Jewish day schools.

The key complaint in the lawsuit is that the district has closed down two schools since the Orthodox bloc took control in 2006. The most recent announced closing, a year ago, was of a school described as the district’s newest and best equipped and the only one surrounded by grass. Several news reports cite rumors, unconfirmed, that the board plans to sell the facility to a yeshiva. The suit was dismissed but is being appealed.

The challengers’ slate includes a Jewish school psychologist, Jay Silverstein, who filed his own federal suit against the district in March 2010 (read about it here), claiming he was removed from his job as the district’s director of guidance last November, despite strong performance ratings, because he was viewed as “anti-Orthodox” by members of the district board.

The Jewish Star, a monthly newspaper that covers the local Orthodox community, reported in April that Silverstein’s boss, district superintendent John Fitzsimons, had “called the accusation baseless and said the district offered Silverstein a position of greater responsibility for the same salary.” Fitzsimons himself, however, sounded very different in an interview with Newsday, the nationally regarded Long Island daily. “I thought in light of the political climate here, it would be a lifesaver for the guy,” Newsday quoted him as saying.

Lawrence is one of five small villages in the southeastern corner of Nassau County, at the edge of Kennedy Airport, known as the Five Towns. The others are Cedarhurst, Hewlett, Woodmere and Inwood. The area was known for decades after World War II as an affluent, heavily Jewish suburb. Central Avenue in Cedarhurst was known as one of the world’s most fashionable shopping districts, part of an elite group that also included Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Since the mid-1980s the area has attracted a large influx of affluent young Orthodox Jewish couples fleeing the overcrowding in older Orthodox sections of Brooklyn. The migration has been accompanied by a steady stream of lawsuits and noisy public feuds over land use, traffic patterns, construction of Sabbath barriers or eruvim, and more. Many stores on Central Avenue were pressured to close on Saturday and most of the high-end shopping has long since left. Public meetings over the years have deteriorated into shouting matches featuring complaints of Orthodox takeover and counter-accusations of antisemitism and even Nazism.

The school board battles in Lawrence are the latest iteration of the feuding. Non-Orthodox residents claim that Orthodox Jews sought membership on the board, even though their children do not attend the public schools, in order to cut costs and lower their taxes.

Supporters of the Orthodox bloc reply that the board has cut costs by improving efficiency while maintaining quality. They also note that Orthodox private schools depend on the district for significant services including buses, books, special education and more. On the other hand, judging by replies on Orthodox websites, a significant segment of Orthodox opinion regards the Orthodox community’s dominance of the school board as a provocative move that needlessly exacerbates tensions with neighbors.

Perusing the reply sections of various Orthodox websites (here, here and here), gives a pretty good feel for the mood on both sides. The Jewish Star reports that this year’s school board election has been more civil than past contests.


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