By his own admission, 18-year-old Josh Lafazan is a very mature and confident young man—and he makes no secret of his ambition: to win a seat on the Syosset Board of Education and become the youngest elected official in New York State.
The senior class president at Syosset High School has already gained a reputation among his peers with his Safe Ride Syosset program, which is a hotline for teens to call for a designated driver if they’ve had too much to drink. And Lafazan’s name is getting increasing recognition from the public as it crops up on lawns and fences across the wealthy suburban district ahead of the May 15 election.
Across Long Island voters will be choosing their own school boards from among the more than 360 candidates and incumbents as well as approving or rejecting their school budgets. In Syosset, incumbents Alan Resnick and Sonia Rutigliano are on a slate with John Moore. Also on the ballot is Chistopher DiFilippo. Of all the candidates for school board—whether in Syosset or anywhere else on LI—Lafazan is the only one who hasn’t yet graduated high school.
He plans to attend Nassau Community College’s honors program in the fall so he could serve as a full-time board member while getting his Associate’s Degree and train as a volunteer firefighter, so his tuition will be reduced. The school-board term, however, is three years, but if he wins a passing grade from the voters, he hopes to attend Columbia University starting in his junior year.
Recently two of Lafazan’s supporters got an unexpected lesson in electoral politics when they were suspended in school for “soliciting.” The incident began April 26 in fourth period when Ryan Jacobs, a senior, was telling his friend that he’d just printed out 10 voter registration forms. They’d been talking in class about Lafazan and his school board campaign when another student joined the conversation, and Jacobs’ companion asked her if she was 18 and was registered to vote.
Their teacher overhead the question and reportedly told the principal Jacobs was soliciting votes for Lafazan, which is not permitted on school grounds.
“The principal never said ‘soliciting’ to me but that’s what he told my parents,” said Jacobs, who plans to go to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse. For the infraction, he had to spend the rest of the day in suspension. His friend, who had actually posed the question about voter registration to the other student, turned himself in—in solidarity, Jacobs explained—but was released after five minutes.
“I was in amazement that I was actually being punished for it,” Jacobs told the Press. “I printed out 10 forms and I didn’t hand out any of them…. This was my first time in the principal’s office. I didn’t even know what I was getting.”
The school district declined through its public relations firm to comment on the suspensions or the unusual campaign. Jacobs was told the episode won’t go on his college record, although the report of his misconduct was forwarded to “all my teachers, the school psychologist and the athletic director.”
Jacobs said his experience running into the limits of democracy within the halls of an American high school didn’t melt his will.
“This definitely means I’m voting for Josh,” Jacobs said. “They definitely cemented my vote for him.”
As for the candidate, Lafazan tried to take the high road.
“The greatest asset the Syosset school district has are its teachers,” he said. “But the amount of resistance I’ve been getting from the administration is terrible.”
He said the administration has distorted his nonprofit designated driver program, which he’d like to expand to other school districts.
“This administration has been telling parents that Safe Ride Syosset promotes teen drinking,” said Lafazan, “whereas we’re right within the guidelines of MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] and [Nassau County District Attorney] Kathleen Rice’s program, Choices and Consequences.”
He also said that hundreds of his lawn signs have been stolen, but he won’t say whom he suspects.
Although this election could give Syosset the youngest elected official in the state, the district has already won the distinction of having New York’s highest paid school superintendent, Carole Hankin, whose salary and benefits add up to $537,767 in the New York Post or $541,454 in Newsday.
“Quite frankly, she’s overpaid,” said Lafazan. “Either this board is so out of touch with what the community is feeling or they have no consideration for the taxpayer. We ask our teachers to take a pay freeze for the second year in a row, parents have to say ‘no’ to their children more, and private sector jobs are being lost, yet she gets a raise? It’s not about the economics… It’s about leadership.”
If elected, Lafazan said, “I’m going to be respectful and polite and I’m going to push my agenda through. Look, I understand it’s all about compromise.”
He is “in full support” of the school budget, which comes in at the 2 percent-property tax cap, but he would like to post the budget so voters could see it “line by line,” whereas now it’s in general categories. He’d also like to change how the public can participate at the board meetings.
“At board meetings members of the community can only speak on topics that are pre-authorized by the school board,” said Lafazan, who’s been attending them regularly since last July. He said the topics are “pre-authorized about 15 to 20 minutes before the meeting, so if you want to talk about your son being bullied, and bullying is not on the agenda, you can’t talk about it.”
As for his political leanings, Lafazan, the son of a mortgage banker and a social worker, is a registered independent.
“When people ask me what I’m party I’m in, I say, ‘I’m in the party of problem solving,’” said the budding young candidate.
But he’s not above asking for advice—especially from someone who’s “been there, done that.” Recently he had breakfast at the Seven Seas Diner in Great Neck with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who so far has the distinction of being the youngest elected official in New York when he began his political career, also as a teenaged school board member. How long DiNapoli holds that record may be determined by Syosset voters this coming Tuesday.
“I am nine days younger than he is,” said Lafazan, whose birthday is Jan. 29. “Tom is such a great guy. It was a good time for me. He’s such a class act.”
Someday, Lafazan may return the favor to another young whippersnapper seeking wisdom from a sage. In the meantime, he’s trying to keep it fresh and make his dream real.