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Letter from Robert Berg: Our Voters Deserve a Choice

BobBergJoanne, I respectfully disagree with everything in your editorial.  You rue the fact that contested elections have come to Scarsdale Village and the Scarsdale School Board in recent years.  I, on the other hand, rejoice.  This is America, where our democracy is rooted in open, contested elections, free speech, and the public exchange of ideas.

I know that doesn’t go down easily with the Scarsdale Establishment that loves to control all of Scarsdale’s elected offices. But our increasingly diverse residents speak not with one voice.  We don’t need a Central Committee reminiscent of the Politburo in the former Soviet Union choosing our elected representatives either for School Board or Village Trustee or Mayor.  We are intelligent, independent thinkers.  Moreover, (1) none of the new crop of SBNC members this year ran in a contested election; and (2) hardly anyone voted for them - just 137 voters total out of 12,400 or so registered Scarsdale voters. This disturbing fact captures the fundamental weakness of the non-representative, “non-partisan” system – a system that does not necessarily reflect the needs and wants of the greater community.  I know from unfortunate personal experience that’s the case with respect to the Citizens Nominating Committee which picks its partisan political party’s nominees for Village office.

You claim that Scarsdale’s supposed “unique non-partisan system” was “formerly the envy of many communities.”  Do you have any data to support this assertion?  I believe that’s only true in the minds of the system’s supporters.

One of the biggest fallacies of the ironically-named “non-partisan system” is that its generally self-selected members have no agenda.  Just look at the school board election two years ago.  That was the election where the SBNC decided not to re-nominate incumbent Board member Pam Fuehrer for re-election at the end of her first three-year term.  Having been rejected by the SBNC – a highly unusual, if not unique occurrence, Pam ran independently, and she won her seat easily.

How did this sui generis scenario arise?  Well, remember the bruising controversy over the Greenacres Elementary School?  After years of discussion and analysis, in 2017, the Administration and the School Board finally decided to renovate and expand the Greenacres School over the vehement opposition of a small group of residents who demanded that the District instead build a brand new school at double the cost of the renovation/expansion.  Joanne, you were a leading proponent of the “build a brand new school” faction, and your website featured many articles and editorials favoring that position.  But in February 2018, the voters overwhelmingly agreed with the Administration and the School Board.  By a 2:1 margin, voters approved the bond for the renovation/expansion, and that project is well underway. 

Some of the dissidents were members of the SBNC, which in March 2018 denied Pam Fuehrer the SBNC's re-nomination of her to the Board, and instead selected another candidate.  Pam decided to run as an independent candidate, just as Mayra is now doing.  Pam won re-election easily, with even ardent long-term supporters of the "non-partisan" system publicly endorsing Pam's independent run.  As we all know, Pam continues to do a splendid job as a Board member and now, as President, during exceptionally difficult circumstances. The District and our residents are being well-served under Pam’s experienced, even-handed, and thoughtful leadership.

Joanne, you seemed puzzled that any candidate would choose to run outside the SBNC banner?  You wonder whether something is wrong with the District or the School Board or the candidates selected by the SBNC, and you have come up blank.  So you pose the rhetorical question of why anyone else would jump in to upset the SBNC cart, causing what you suggest is a highly active, divisive, “tiresome” political campaign?  Where is your proof that that Mayra is running a “divisive” campaign?  In fact, many residents are publishing letters supporting her candidacy and thanking her for running.  No one is “attacking” the SBNC candidates.  Mayra is just reaching out to the public, presenting her qualifications, and asking for the public’s support.  (Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about certain members of the Campaign Committee for the SBNC candidates who are, in fact, misbehaving.)

You say the volunteers supporting the SBNC candidates are now being forced to spend time defending their candidates and raising money to campaign “simply to defend Scarsdale’s unique brand of governance” when they otherwise could be helping imperiled residents. I guess that’s the price of democracy, free speech, and open elections.  I hope we still have this on a national level in November of this year too. 

The SBNC candidates have delegated leadership of their campaign to the Coalition for Scarsdale Schools, a political organization headed by former School Board member Art Rublin.  Their 28-member campaign committee is running a well-funded, coordinated effort to promote its candidates and to “save” the SBNC system.  Mayra, on the other hand, is running her campaign by herself, while trying to ensure that her two elementary school-age kids stay on top of their schoolwork and her consulting business stays afloat.

Many, if not most Scarsdale residents, especially newcomers, are mystified by the “unique” “non-partisan system” that supposedly underlies Scarsdale’s electoral system for both Village and School District government.  What Scarsdale voters need to understand is that the so-called Scarsdale “non-partisan system” is not an official governmental electoral system at all. Instead, it is a partisan political party system invented by its adherents which simply calls itself “non-partisan.”  By dint of its accumulated power over many decades, most residents have been intimidated from running against the “machine” in a contested election, even though that’s the norm everywhere in the United States and under New York State’s election laws.

In Scarsdale, the system began in 1911 in connection with the Village election as a result of a convenient power-sharing deal between the Republicans and the Democrats that resolved a nasty spat from the previous election.   The “new deal” allowed the wealthy, white Protestant men of Scarsdale – the power elite – to determine for everyone who the elected officials of the Village would be for decades into the future.  Remember, at the time, women didn’t even have the legal right to vote!

Paradoxically, today’s strongest supporters of this inherently undemocratic and flawed system are precisely the type of people its “founders” intended to keep out of Scarsdale’s public offices (and were successful in doing so for decades). Although times, the law, and the rules of both the SBNC and CNC have changed over the decades to become more open and welcoming, the Village Board still has never had a person of color as a Trustee or Mayor and the School Board has had only one.  Neither Board reflects the wonderful diversity of Scarsdale’s residents.

With respect to School Board elections, New York State law nowhere contemplates “selection committees” like the SBNC for candidates for School Board.  School Board elections are governed by New York Education Law Section 2018, which provides that persons seeking to run for School Board simply need to file a petition signed by a small number of qualified voters of the District. Once they obtain the requisite number of signatures, they get on the ballot. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order dispensing with the requirement to obtain signatures, and all any candidate had to do is file a nominating petition he/she signed, attesting that he/she qualified to run and intends to run.  New York law encourages all qualified and interested residents to run for School Board, and it’s up to the voters in the District to decide who they want to be their representatives by voting.

The SBNC-chosen candidates are not the only ones in town who could do a great job on the School Board. Our community is incredibly fortunate that during this terrible pandemic – which has caused a recession far worse than the financial crisis in 2008-2009 – Mayra Kirkendall-Rodríguez has decided to step up and run for School Board.  I’ve lived in Scarsdale for 18 years, and she is among the very best candidates for School Board I’ve seen during my tenure here.

Her life story is inspiring. She is one of 15 siblings, the daughter of a migrant farmworker from South Texas.  Mayra, with parental support, her own drive, and the transformative power of public school education, graduated near the top of her high school class.  Mayra went on to Harvard University, where she received her BA degree, and then on to the University of Pennsylvania, obtaining an M.B.A. degree from The Wharton School and a M.A. degree from the Lauder Institute.  Mayra speaks 6 languages and has worked in or visited 73 countries. Besides her linguistic skills, Mayra is an expert in financial risk management and modeling.

I have worked extensively with Mayra for four years on a variety of civic projects, especially at the Scarsdale Forum where I am a former President.  Mayra is incredibly bright, passionate, analytical, and thoughtful. She is able to work well with people who have disparate views.  Mayra is a true leader.  Her financial acumen, analytical abilities, risk management expertise, and her global background will make her a superb addition to the School Board, especially during these trying times.  While I do not know the other two candidates, I thank them for being willing to run for public office.  This is why I’m a fan of “contested” elections.  Our voters deserve a choice.  We are smart enough to make up our own minds as to which candidates we want to select to represent us on the School Board.

And this from Bobby Ben-Simon


I must say I'm disturbed by your opinion letter on Scarsdale's unique non-partisan system of government. While I didn't form an opinion on this issue yet, your letter does elude the obvious issue... Democracy. Scarsdale is not unique with this type of system. In fact, you can see it implemented for many decades in Russia, China, Venezuela, North Korea, and most Middle East countries. For you to say, " I don’t need divisive politics in the place of refuge I am fortunate to call home; Scarsdale" is troubling. Would you accept the same system if it were a group of people that don’t share your views?


Bobby Ben-Simon, President.

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