Readers Write: School elections should be conducted by independent group

The Island Now

Open letter to Superintendent of Great Neck Schools, Dr. Teresa Prendergast.

In a letter sent (May 18, 2021) entitled. “reflection of a victorious election” sent by the president of Great Neck Board of Education, Barbara Berkowitz, wrote:

“… Personally, I even chose to vote by absentee ballot in order to avoid being seen at my specific polling place as any conflict of interest.”

Should all candidates running for office not vote in person at their polling sites?  Do they all have a conflict of interest if they vote in their designated polling site?

The stated reason by Ms. Berkowitz is at odds with the rules which could be used for voting by absentee ballots.

According to School District Absentee Ballot Application form, the acceptable reasons for voting absentee are: Absence from county on Election Day, illness or physical disability, duties related to primary care for others, hospitalization in a Veterans Hospital, detention, jailed/prisoned awaiting trial (Box 1).

“Concerns about COVID-19” could be another reason for voting by absentee ballot according to a booklet sent to the residents prior to the school elections.  The reason Ms. Berkowitz cited, “being seen at her own specific polling place as any conflict of interest” is not listed as one of the acceptable categories.  Is she an exception to the rules?

Applicants for absentee ballots are warned with a clear directive in the signature box (Box 7) that providing false statement in application could constitute a misdemeanor.

Did Ms. Berkowitz commit a misdemeanor?  She admitted in her public letter to voting by absentee ballot to avoid appearance conflict of interest – but that is not one of the choices on the application form.

The person who should be concerned and answering that question is the superintendent of the Great Neck Public Schools, Dr. Teresa Prendergast.

The superintendent oversees all the affairs of the school including the school elections.  She can either address this issue or avoid dealing with it and hope no one brings up the apparent falsehood on Berkowitz’s application.

The elections for the Great Neck Public Schools district are conducted by the GNPS which is headed by the superintendent.  The Board of Education (BOE) is the entity which hires the superintendent.  The superintendent is the person in charge of anything going on at the district including the elections.

To be true to her oath of office, Superintendent Prendergast should not be silent and push these election issues under the rug.

If she is not sufficiently knowledgeable about the legal aspects of the school elections can seek a consultation with the school’s counsel, and make an official statement about how the election staff processed Berkowitz’s voting application.  Did they allow granting an absentee ballot to Ms. Berkowitz, the person who had appointed their boss?  The school staff all work under the superintendent and ultimately report to her.

The superintendent can investigate any irregularities in the school elections; though such an investigation could be detrimental to her own future contract, which would therefore also be a “conflict of her interests.” 

In a nutshell, it is clear that there is a vicious cycle by design at the Great Neck School District.  The entities: “Great Neck Board of Education” and “Superintendent of School” constitute a closed system, protecting the interests of each other.  This is utterly at odds with the separation of powers and contradicts the democratic process envisioned in the Constitution.

A healthy process without the presence of feedback loops and with no “conflict of interest” must replace the existing vicious cycle:

  1. The elections for the BOE for the GNPS should be conducted by an independent entity that is not controlled by the BOE.  Maybe, the New York State Board of Elections is the correct entity that should manage these elections, excluding any employees of the Great Neck School District.
  2. The GNPS BOE polling sites should not be on the public school grounds, rather at the Park District buildings, e.g., Great Neck House, Parkwood facilities, in order to avoid the “appearance of any conflict of interest” or even “the real conflict of interest” in order to maintain a fair and independent election.

If this vicious cycle is not broken, it will eventually cause severe economic consequences for our community.

The current system dates to two centuries ago when elections were designed for small schools in rural areas.  It’s already the 21st century.  The school’s archaic system needs a major overhaul.

Should Superintendent Prendergast choose not to address the issues, the Board of Elections should get involved and clarify these rules.

Ben Elihu

Kings Point


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