Written by Karen Gellender: email@example.com Friday, 04 May 2012 00:00
(Editor’s Note: Please see editorial on page 14.)
Fact one: Josh Lafazan is running for a seat on the Syosset Central School District Board of Trustees on May 15. Fact two: the candidate, current Syosset High School senior class president, is still 18 years old. For some people, these two facts do not seem to go together. Why is someone so young running for the position of school board trustee, a role usually pursued by those with children (and frequently, grandchildren) in the district?
“Look, I’m the first one to concede that nine 18-year-olds on the school board would not create a sound governing body,” said Lafazan wryly, obviously used to fielding the question. However, Lafazan feels that just one 18-year-old on the school board—with challenging ideas, abundant energy, and the experience of being a student fresh in his mind— could be an invaluable asset to district taxpayers. Furthermore, whether he were 18 or 81, Lafazan believes his desire to bring more transparency to the board is something that resonates with many residents who currently feel disenfranchised.
This interest in politics is hardly a new thing, as Lafazan has been involved in student government ever since he was a small child at Walt Whitman Elementary School. The son of a mortgage banker and a social worker, Lafazan said he realized from a young age that he loved talking to people, hearing their problems and finding solutions. While most of his student council experience involved fundraising, more recently he’s been in charge of organizing the senior prom, something he says helped teach him to delegate.
Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, he also started his own charity in September of 2011, Safe Ride Syosset. While Lafazan had served as an unofficial designated driver on the weekends for his friends ever since he got his driver’s license, taking home between five and 15 students on his own initiative, he decided to dedicate himself to eradicating underage drinking and driving in Syosset after hearing about the DUI conviction of former Jets player Braylon Edwards. For Lafazan, the interesting part of the story wasn’t Edwards himself, but the fact that three of his fellow Jets players, who had millions of dollars and could easily afford alternate transportation, still chose to get in the car with a drunk driver.
“That got me thinking: what about my classmates, who don’t have these options?” remembered Lafazan.
Now, 40 volunteer drivers work in pairs to keep Syosset students from either driving drunk, or getting in a car driven by an impaired driver. On Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., students can call Lafazan’s cell phone, at which point either he or a volunteer will give them a ride home “free of charge, no questions asked, and no judgments passed.”
As of the end of April, Safe Ride had picked up 325 students, and there has not been a drinking-related crash involving a Syosset student this academic year—something Lafazan attributes in part to the efforts of his volunteers.
Interestingly, it was an incident involving Safe Ride that made Lafazan acutely aware that he and the district administration did not necessarily see eye to eye. This winter, when Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice came to speak at Syosset High School about her anti-drunk driving program, Choices and Consequences, Lafazan asked if he could speak at the event in his capacity as the founder of Safe Ride. Rice’s office agreed, but the administration did not, telling Lafazan that it was Syosset policy not to let outside organizations into the school.
However, Lafazan is quick to point out that the district is not consistent about this policy: there were posters promoting third-party fundraisers all over Syosset High School. It seemed to him that the district was preventing him from speaking simply because they were threatened by the fact that he was planning to run for school board in a few months.
“There’s a plethora of posters promoting charities from outside the school, yet my charity was not allowed. This is a perfect example of the Syosset administration putting politics above saving lives,” said Lafazan.
The candidate does not mince words in his criticisms of the school board, stating that anyone on the board who voted for the June 2011 deal that locked Superintendent Carole Hankin in at her current salary until 2016 “does not deserve to be an elected representative of the Syosset citizenry.” Furthermore, he is highly critical of the district’s Audience to the Public policy, which prevents residents from asking questions at board meetings on topics that are not already on the board’s agenda. “If you have a question, then you should be entitled to have that question answered…our elected officials should work for us,” he said.
If elected, the candidate says he will work to change that policy so residents are free to ask whatever questions they want at board meetings: for the amount of property taxes they pay, Lafazan says, they’re entitled to have their voices heard.
In general, Lafazan said he wants to make the workings of the school board more transparent, more open to criticism, and more in touch with what the residents of Syosset think, citing neighboring Jericho Union Free School District as an example of a district with a strong record of listening to its residents. He would like to emulate the best open-government policies from Jericho and other school boards, something he plans to do by attending school board meetings for other districts and speaking with school board trustees from all over Nassau.
This commitment to adopt best practices is an area where Lafazan’s age benefits him, he explains; as someone without children of his own yet, he can afford to put in the time to learn as much about what other school boards are doing as possible, something other trustees may not be able to do.
Another significant change Lafazan would like to institute if elected includes allowing for a line-by-line budget review by district residents. The plan is for residents with different areas of professional expertise to look over the budget in great detail, so the district would have the benefit of cost-savings suggestions from residents who are experts in their field.
Other changes he advocates include basing the district’s foreign language program on those found in Europe so that Syosset graduates will graduate truly bilingual, giving every elementary school student the opportunity to start writing computer code, and paying educators a one-time fee to write textbooks and software that the district could then license and sell to other districts, raising revenue while lowering textbook costs. He admits that some of these ideas are ambitious, but he says he’s willing to do the work to make it happen.
While it may seem like he’s at odds with the current board about practically everything, that isn’t true; he’s adamant in his support of the 2012-13 budget, with the caveat that he is disappointed that the district had to use $6 million in reserves to make it happen. Lafazan feels that spending all that reserve money is simply putting off tough decisions that should be made now.
Win or lose, Lafazan has a busy year lined up. In addition to hoping to devote his time to the school board, he also plans to take his charity to every high school in Nassau. “Every high school student should be able to call their local Safe Ride chapter in an emergency situation and get a safe ride home with a sober driver,” he said. He made his choice to attend local Nassau Community College so that he would be available both to serve as a trustee and to expand Safe Ride.
For Lafazan, the choice to go to NCC is indicative of the pragmatism he would bring to the board. As an honor student and a nationally ranked high school congressional debater, he could have attended many prestigious schools, but choose NCC because it was the most cost effective. This way, he can save a lot of money at the undergraduate level while maintaining the ability to earn a graduate degree at the university of his choice.
“Basically, the Syosset school board’s job is to deliver the best quality of education at the lowest cost, and that is exactly what my going to Nassau affords me,” Lafazan said.
In two weeks, Lafazan will find out whether or not his message resonated with enough district voters to put him on the board. If he wins, he’ll be the youngest elected official in New York State. Chances are he’ll be busy either way, but if elected to the board, he may encounter some opposition to some of his more challenging ideas. That’s okay, says Lafazan, he’s used to opposition: he’s the kid who’s been teased throughout his entire high school career for never touching alcohol. If he hasn’t given into peer pressure yet, why start now?
For more information on Josh Lafazan’s campaign, visit JoshLafazan.org. In addition, Lafazan and his fellow candidates will debate the issues at Meet the Candidates Night at South Woods Middle School on Thursday, May 10.