Youth is served on the school board

Joshua Lafazan, center, celebrates with friends and classmates

Joshua Lafazan, center, celebrates with friends and classmates after winning a seat on the Syosset Board of Education. (May 16, 2012) (Credit: David Pokress)

Kudos to Joshua Lafazan for making Syosset school board history. Perhaps his victory will inspire other high school and college students to run for elected office.

That would be a grand thing.

Politicians often encourage young people to participate in the process by voting. But at age 18, students can do better than that.

They can do the hard work of identifying issues, working the neighborhood and crafting a campaign for the level of government closest to the community.

School boards are a good entry into public service because new members -- under state law, thanks to the budget scandals in Roslyn -- are mandated to learn about all aspects of the job, from duties to budgets.

"It makes me happy to see that the system will make allowances for a young man who is committed and who is persistent," said James M. Sherry, who in 1987 won election to the Mineola school board. He was an 18-year-old freshman at St. John's University at the time.

"I hope he stands as an example that things are possible in government," said Sherry, now deputy commissioner for downstate operations at the state Division of Homeland Security.

Douglas Pascarella was a Plainedge high school senior in 2004 when he, at 18, won a school board seat. At 26, he's an accountant -- and the board's longest-serving member. "I've been staying the course," he said.

Early on, Lafazan sought Pascarella's advice on running a campaign. "I'm really happy that Josh now has an opportunity to serve," Pascarella said. "He obviously has a mandate from the people in the district and he's got a big job ahead of him."

Like Pascarella and Sherry during their campaigns, Lafazan also got advice from Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, who at 18 became the youngest elected official in New York State.

The year he was elected to the Mineola school board -- 1972 -- was shortly after 18-year-olds got the right to vote.

"There was almost a fear back then that with young people being involved it was going to be like that movie, 'Wild in the Streets,' " DiNapoli said, referring to the 1968 cult film. In the movie, with a plot that includes everything from an LSD-drugged water supply in Washington to mandated retirement for everyone over 30, a 21-year-old congresswoman fights to lower the voting age -- to 14.

DiNapoli spent his first three years on the school board listening; he did not utter a single word at board meetings. "He told me that but I couldn't do it," Pascarella said. DiNapoli's tenure on the Mineola board "created a culture where the board welcomed me with open arms," Pascarella added.

DiNapoli won praise as a board member. And he never left the experience behind. Later as a Democratic state assemblyman who represented northwestern Nassau County, he witnessed the Roslyn schools scandal -- in which taxpayers were bilked by district officials of more than $11 million over several years -- and wrote the law requiring mandated training for board members so they could be better stewards. As comptroller, his office is responsible for that training and for auditing school districts.

"Being a teenager on a school board was a life-changing experience," he said. "It started my career in public service."

So far, the local fraternity of teenaged school board members is small.

Roger Tilles, the Long Island representative on the State Board of Regents, is one of many who would like to see more.

"Generally, I think it's a good thing to have young people involved," he said. "But they have to be careful not to become the student representative."

That's a point DiNapoli and Pascarella both said they made with Lafazan.

But first, young people, you've got to run.