Seven years ago, I was approached by a group of friends with an unexpected request. Would I be interested in running for trustee of my local public school district?
I had no political experience and only a hazy understanding of the Nassau County, Long Island public schools. I was told our district covered roughly half of the Five Towns, and that it was a large operation with over a thousand employees. I was further told that seven trustees were elected to set policy and to oversee a budget that ran close to $100 million. And many of those policies touched yeshiva children directly, particularly in the areas of transportation and special education.
The one thing I knew on my own was that the political climate in our district had grown extremely contentious. Tax revolt had swept across Nassau County, and the local board decided to “punish” the frum community for its lack of support by, among other things, cutting special education services to yeshiva students.
I’ll spare you the details of how we won the election. Suffice it to say we restored those services, and others as well. Of almost equal importance, we introduced fiscal discipline. When we took power, the school district budget was almost identical to the neighboring district that is responsible for the other half of the Five Towns. Today our budget is $25 million less.
And this is when you begin to understand just how important these local elections are. How much of that $25 million is paid by the frum community? No one is keeping track, but the figure probably falls somewhere between $12 million and $15 million. Think for a moment of what we would have to do to raise that kind of money in the frum community. Think of countless Chinese auctions, raffles, dinners, appeals – and still we couldn’t do it.
But we do it every year now – and all because people went to the polls and voted.
Before we took power, there were dozens of frum families that didn’t receive school busing. For the people affected, this was anything but trivial. A private company charges about $2,500 after tax dollars to transport a child for a school year. And many working families simply don’t have the ability to car pool. Well, these people receive busing now. And all because people went down to the polls and voted.
Most important of all are the frum families with special-needs children that were denied reimbursement because they wanted to place their children in frum programs. This denial cost each of those families tens of thousands of dollars every year. A law has been proposed in Albany to end this injustice – one that has received the overwhelming support of both the State Assembly and State Senate – but for now Governor Cuomo has vetoed it. In our district, these families now receive reimbursement. And all because people went to the polls and voted.
“All politics are local,” Tip O’Neill used to say, but you’d never know it from voter turnout. We’ll raise millions of dollars for frum special education, but we won’t go to the polls to vote for officials who support frum special education.
People line up to vote for president, but they rarely take the time to vote for anything else. In our school board elections, we rarely get turnout of more than twenty percent.
This is the great paradox of American politics. The elections people ignore are the ones that have the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives. An election for sanitation commissioner or small town mayor lacks the panache of an election for president or senator. But while the president is arm-wrestling with Congress over Iraq, global warming or a new farm bill, these lower officials are the ones that determine whether you get school busing, when and how often your trash gets picked up and how much you’ll pay in property taxes.
And those are the elections where your vote really matters. In a presidential election, you are .00000001 percent of the electorate, or about a hundred millionth of the total. Moreover, if you live in the tri-state area, your vote is truly meaningless because New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are almost never battleground states (though you should still vote anyway; see below).
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