Schenectady’s longest-tenured current school board member is stepping down at the end of his term.
Andrew Chestnut announced his decision Monday.
“My particular talents are most valuable at the beginnings of things, when the old framework no longer holds and there is a need for a new vision,” he said, adding that those talents are no longer needed.
“Now, we have an effective school board and a district led by a talented superintendent who is passionate about social justice,” he said.
He said he only ran in 2010 because he “just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Chestnut was voted in with three other candidates dedicated to bringing transparency and reform to the board. The district was reeling from poor graduation rates, a widely disliked superintendent the board had to pay to leave shortly after Chestnut was elected, and the conviction of a school official who had placed explosives on other employees’ cars and at their homes.
Chestnut waded into the mix gently. He was the one who urged employees to talk, advocating for open conversation as a way of healing from the past. He also strongly fought against what he saw as bullying, pushing to have policies changed.
“I am proud that during my time on the school board, we have been successful at helping people develop the habit of asking ‘What is the right thing to do?’ instead of, as in the past, ‘What power do we have?’ When the first question is power, bullying by the powerful often results,” he said.
At one of his first school board meetings, the board was asked to decide whether a student could wear rosary beads to school, he recalled. The boy had refused to take off the beads and was suspended. His family sued.
“It was pointed out that the district had the power to control what kids do and don’t wear to school. I agreed, but noted that the district had chosen to use that power in ways that resulted in paralysis. Eventually, we asked the right question and got a better answer,” he said.
The board agreed to settle the case and allow the boy to wear the beads.
The board voted to get rid of Superintendent Eric Ely, eventually paying him to leave, then hired an interim superintendent to help sort out the district’s finances, in hopes of attracting strong superintendent candidates. Once the district hired Superintendent Laurence Spring, Chestnut said, he thought about not running for another term.
“I changed my mind when I realized that for Larry to do his job effectively, he would have to ruffle some feathers. To do that, he would need strong support from his board, so I served another term,” he said.
But now, he said, he is not longer needed.
School board President Cathy Lewis begged to differ.
“He will be missed,” she said. “Andy’s been a wonderful contributor. He has a way of looking at systemic changes. He has a wonderful grasp of the big picture and the fact that you have to do things in a different way if you’re going to have different results.”
She added that she was sorry to see him go.
“But I understand his reasons,” she said.
Chestnut is planning to move on to his next adventure: starting a French restaurant with his wife. Chez Nous will open on Union Street this fall. On Wednesdays, while the school board meets, he will be greeting diners.
But he said he’s left his mark on the board.
“I have confidence that my board colleagues, together with Larry Spring and the SCSD staff, will continue to ask first, ‘What is right?’ before asking ‘What power do we have?’ ” he said.