Long Island, NY – A Duke-educated psychologist contends in a federal lawsuit that he lost his $140,000-a-year guidance director’s job in the Lawrence school district because he was viewed as “anti-Orthodox” by board members who are mostly Orthodox Jews.
District officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but noted the board under Orthodox leadership has provided high-quality education to students, most of whom are non-Orthodox.
In legal papers filed Friday in U.S. District Court, the former school administrator, Jay Silverstein, says he was advised by his superintendent that he could boost his chances of obtaining job tenure by becoming friendlier with board members and with a fellow administrator who was said to be Orthodox and influential.
Silverstein, 47, never received tenure and was terminated by the district in November, despite strong job performance ratings. He now works as a consultant for two private special education schools and does private counseling.
Silverstein still lives in the Lawrence district where his two children attend classes. He plans to run for the Lawrence school board in May.
“I’m sad and angry that a board of education would sacrifice good employees and harm children and families in the district to achieve a political purpose,” he said.
Silverstein, who was born Jewish but is nonpracticing, said he harbors no negative feelings toward any religious group.
Superintendent John Fitzsimons voiced disappointment over Silverstein’s lawsuit, pointing out that he had offered Silverstein another job at equal pay, after realizing Silverstein would not be granted tenure as guidance director. “I thought in light of the political climate here, it would be a lifesaver for the guy,” Fitzsimons said.
Silverstein’s lawsuit is the latest episode in a running battle between Lawrence’s non-Orthodox residents and the Orthodox majority, who took over the school board in 2006.
About 3,190 students attend district public schools; about 4,000 attend private schools, mostly Orthodox yeshivas.
Lawrence spends $29,300 per student – 30 percent more than the Long Island average – and academic performance has improved in recent years.
But in March 2009, the board with virtually no discussion closed the district’s School Number 6. It was the second local school closed in the past six years, and was attended by many children from Atlantic Beach, where Silverstein and residents have spoken out against the board’s approach.
In August, a federal court dismissed a parents’ lawsuit to block sale of the school; an appeal is pending. Silverstein’s attorney, Rick Ostrove of Carle Place, contends his client’s job loss violated his constitutional right to free speech.
Board president Murray Forman dismissed Silverstein’s case as appearing to be “another frivolous lawsuit” but declined to comment on any specifics of the case.
“It’s kind of a shame, because all this will do is sap more resources that are better off spent on children,” he said.
Co-workers praise Silverstein’s job performance, especially an electronic databank that he built to help students apply to colleges and seek financial aid.
“He certainly was a wonderful director of guidance,” said Vicki Karant, district assistant superintendent for curriculum.