New Latino Majority on LI Board of Ed. Tackles Challenges

Julia Burgos, member of the Brentwood School District Board of Education (Photo via La Tribune Hispana)

With two Latinas winning the Brentwood Board of Education elections on Long Island, big, long-awaited changes seem to be heading its way, and it could signify a new direction in the approach this important school district – where a large majority of the students are Latino – takes on education.

On May 16, María González-Prescod and Simona Holder-Daniel each won a two-year seat on the board, while Julia Burgos will serve for the remaining year of Gail Kirkham’s term. Kirkham died recently while still in office.

Thus, a Latino majority of 5 out of the 7 board members is now in charge, an unprecedented instance in this district, which is home to a large Hispanic population. The other Latino members are Elizabeth Mercado, Eileen Félix and Daniel Calderón.

La Tribuna Hispana spoke with Burgos, a social worker, who said that, while it is true that she and her fellow Latina candidates won comfortably, “the challenge from here on out will be to aim for a significant improvement of the educational quality of Brentwood’s schools,” adding that they will also seek to obtain more funding for the school district to make this opportunity a reality.

The Brentwood School District serves nearly 20,000 students and has one of the largest budgets in the state with almost $400 million per year. The money is managed directly by the school board.

La Tribuna Hispana: For the first time in history we are seeing a Hispanic majority on the board. Do you think this fact is significant or irrelevant?

Julia Burgos: I do not think that it is necessarily relevant, but it helps quite a bit, considering that we have a Latino majority in our district and that we have to give them the treatment they need as an immigrant community. But, yes, we are a majority, as 5 of the 7 seats are now occupied by Hispanics, and that is a pretty special situation. In fact, it will help one of our objectives, which is to seek cultural integration. We want our Hispanic community to feel valued and an important part of our school district.

LTH: Simultaneous with the election, the budget for the year 2017-18 was approved. Among the changes you have promised, which will you be focusing on the most, considering this budget?

JB: I think that the first thing is to be responsible with the resources and to use the money effectively. We will have to reassess the quality of the services and how they are being offered. For instance, I am a social worker. I retired two years ago from my position as a Brentwood School District employee. When they began cutting services, they also started laying people off. So, when I left, there were only five social workers for a student population of 20,000. It is not only insufficient but also deficient. Families need to be supported through this service – which is crucial to connecting schools and communities – and through counselors, whom I consider we need more of. However, it is a fact that, in the past, positions were created pointlessly and that some people used the budget to benefit themselves and their close associates. That is what we want to banish forever.


LTH: For a mostly-Hispanic population, election turnout is still quite low. Why do you think that people fail to get out and vote?

JB: Yes, that is true. I think that, this year, some 1,600 voters cast their ballots, and I got a little over 900 votes; 910, I think. This in no way corresponds to the 80,000 Latino residents in the Brentwood district. A candidate can win with a little more than 2,000 votes here, and we are talking about voters in general, not just Latino votes. Undoubtedly, there is much work to do.

LTH: A delicate but unavoidable topic – after seeing so many deaths of youths last year and early this year due to gangs such as MS-13 – is student safety in schools. What kind of treatment will this issue have under your tenure?

JB: That is an issue we will have tackle in a number of different ways. Safety is very important for our schools to be effective, and it is an issue of great concern to our agenda. But that is not all: We will be complementing [our work] with the assistance programs offered by the school district, and we will coordinate with other programs such as the one offered by the STRONG organization, which has received federal funds for after-school services for children and youths.

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