SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady Board of Education election this month pits the board’s longest-serving members against challengers calling for more urgency in addressing the district’s challenges and more accountability over its leaders.
Current board members Cathy Lewis and Ann Reilly highlighted a litany of ongoing initiatives aimed at improving student outcomes, from focusing on the trauma caused by poverty to relying on constructive rather than punitive discipline. They also said they hope to maintain stability on the board. Former board member Andy Chestnut is running on a similar platform and sharing campaign signs with Lewis and Reilly.
But three other candidates are challenging the incumbents, pitching their “fresh perspective(s)” and calling for more community outreach and improved communication, a better-articulated vision and stronger accountability over Superintendent Larry Spring.
“I really don’t see an established long-term vision for our schools, for our district,” said Craig Brewer, a father of twin daughters, who is running for the board.
Princella Learry, who graduated from the Schenectady City School District, raised kids in the district and worked in the district, and Veronica Cochrane, a 1988 graduate of Mont Pleasant High School and the mother of a high school senior, are also running for one of three open school board seats.
In interviews with the six candidates, differences emerged over how best to manage the city’s 10,000-student district, which has invested in myriad new student programs in recent years but continues to struggle with the region’s lowest graduation rate at around 60 percent.
Here’s a look at the six candidates on the May 21 ballot:
Reilly has served on the school board since 2010 and is seeking election to her fourth term.
Reilly, who graduated from Linton High School, has had four kids come through the district, attending five different schools. The youngest of her children graduated from Schenectady High School last year.
Reilly said she thinks the district has made steady progress in recent years she hopes to maintain, advocating for increased state funding and instituting programs to improve early-grade literacy, student attendance and other issues.
“We’re in the middle of a lot of things I would like to see through,” Reilly said. “We are still fighting for the funding we have been fighting for since I’ve been on the board.”
The budget adopted by the school board last month cuts the local tax levy 1.44 percent and invests around $4 million into new students services, thanks to the biggest state funding increase in the region.
Reilly highlighted the board’s commitment to lowering the tax levy as state funding increases; the board has lowered or kept flat the tax levy for five straight years.
“It shows the community that [Spring] and the board have been pretty consistent in saying if we get more funding we will try to give tax relief as well as improve services for students,” she said.
Reilly called the district’s 60 percent graduation rate “frustrating” and said recent graduating classes went through deep budget cuts while they were in the critical middle school years. She said she thinks the district will see its graduation rate improve more steadily.
“I’m hoping we will see some improvement this year and see that continue each year on,” she said.
Lewis is also seeking election to her fourth term on the school board. Like Reilly, Lewis emphasized ongoing district programs she said are fostering major improvements to student learning and will serve as the foundation of rising graduation rates in the coming years.
“I was pleased with the direction the district is headed,” she said of running for another three-year term. “The graduation rate we know still needs to be improved, and we are hopeful it will this year.”
She highlighted the district’s work to become “trauma sensitive,” an effort to focus on the life factors that create challenges to student learning, and literacy gains among the district’s youngest students as projects that are moving city schools in the right direction.
Advocacy efforts to boost state funding have also paid off in recent state budgets, bringing more money into the district’s coffers to be used on tax relief and student programs.
“We are beginning to meet kids where we need to in terms of the services we could offer,” she said.
Lewis said the school district faces major challenges and that it takes patience and persistence to see improvements come to fruition. She also said it was important to have experienced board members and said some people may not fully grasp how much there is to learn as a board member.
“You don’t fix these things over night,” she said. “There’s a fair-sized learning curve associated with this that I think people might underestimate.”
Looking ahead to the next three years, Lewis said the district should explore and expansion of career and technical programs and expanding the electives students can take. She also said finding professional opportunities for students like internships and mentorships will be critical in the coming years.
Cochrane, who has volunteered in district athletic programs as her children have progressed through the schools, said she hoped to join the school board to continue her services to the district.
“We do have the generations coming up behind my kids, and I still want to be able to provide some volunteer time for them,” Cochrane said. “Just because your kids leave the district doesn’t mean you have to stop volunteering or being involved in the programs.”
Cochrane said she hopes to better connect families to the school district’s work, promising to communicate the kinds of things the school board is working on with parents in the district.
She said it was important to individualize student learning in the earliest grades, challenging the strongest students and supporting students struggling with a subject. She said students’ poor behavior or academic apathy may be a result of running up against a challenging concept and not getting the support to work past it.
Cochrane’s husband works as a social worker at Mont Pleasant Middle School, and she said it is key that students have access to people they can connect with and feel comfortable talking through their problems with.
“[We need to] be able to guide them to someone else they would feel comfortable sitting down with, being able to provide them, here is another person you might feel more relaxed talking to,” she said. “It doesn’t always have to be a crisis.”
Cochrane said she can relate to many families in Schenectady; she said she had received social services in the past. She also suggested that others on the board may not relate as well to all the district’s families.
“I don’t know if they [board members] ever had to receive services, I don’t know if they have been in that position where you are struggling to support your child and no one is there for you,” she said. “How can you help people or advise them if they’ve had this experience you’ve never experienced.”
Learry went to Schenectady school, sent her children to Schenectady schools and worked in Schenectady. Now she hopes to serve on the Schenectady school board.
“I’m a former student there myself; I have children who went through the school system, and I worked in the school system for a while,” she said. “So I come in with a broader perspective than most.”
Learry grew up in Hamilton Hill and graduated from Mont Pleasant High School. She had two children graduate from Schenectady schools. When she worked in the school district for about a dozen years, Learry oversaw grant-funded prevention programs.
She said a lot of parent concerns are going unaddressed in the school district, highlighting concerns over the culture in school buildings, fights in middle school and what she said was insufficient engagement with the community.
“The community wants to work with the district, but the district is sort of pushing them off,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to be as open as it used to be.”
She also said there appears to be a divide between what parents are saying about their experience in Schenectady schools, and the concerns they are raising, and the response from district officials. She cited student bullying and instances of unattended students as examples where she is hearing different messages from parents and district leaders.
“There seems to be a communication gap,” she said. “The district is saying one thing, but parents are saying something else.”
Learry also questioned whether Lewis and Reilly had done enough during their time on the board to move the district’s academics forward.
“The older [board members] seem complacent,” she said. “When you have low graduation rates and high turnover, there are issues going on and you want to make that better.”
Brewer, who works as associate director of campus recreation at the University at Albany, has twin daughters at Zoller Elementary School and has lived in Schenectady for over a dozen years.
Brewer said he thinks the board needs to do a better job establishing a long-term strategic plan and set regular and specific targets to hold Superintendent Larry Spring accountable for reaching. He said too many district initiatives get launched but aren’t followed up on or carried to completion.
“From my perspective, the board has really abdicated its authority and it has failed to hold the superintendent accountable, and it’s not really doing its job,” Brewer said. “They start things and they don’t finish them, they move to the next thing, and it’s because no one is held accountable.”
Brewer said he had his first experience with the school board a few years ago over concerns with a plan to bus students from Zoller to the high school for an afterschool program. He said he didn’t feel comfortable with his young kids at the high school. He suggested some board members were afraid to speak up about the issue in a public setting but expressed “off the record” support in phone calls and emails after he attended a meeting to relay his concerns.
He said the district’s lack of a long-range strategic plan, which district officials are currently working on, was an indication of unfocused leadership from the school board. Also, he said, the board doesn’t have specific goals to hold Spring accountable for meeting.
“There are no tangible goals with action plans that are listed anywhere I can find,” Brewer said. “I look on our [school district] website; there is nothing, so I don’t know what our vision is and I don’t know where we are going.”
Another graduate of Schenectady schools, Chestnut has worked as a corporate executive, social worker and restaurant owner.
Chestnut was elected to the board in 2010 alongside Lewis and Reilly. But he hasn’t served on the board since 2015.
Chestnut said he has been proud of the progress the district has made under Spring’s leadership – he cited a discipline diversion program and increased state funding as examples — and said he wanted to rejoin the board to support the continued work of the district.
“I’m running because I was part of the group that brought in Superintendent Spring, and I’m real proud of that,” Chestnut said. “I wanted to run again because I think his leadership is actually addressing a number of the real systematic problems that have developed over the years.”
He also counseled patience in allowing ongoing initiatives to pay academic dividends in the coming years.
“I’m as impatient as everyone else,” he said of slow improvement in graduation rates and other academic measures. “It’s also true we are seeing improvements at younger ages in terms of their reading proficiency … Let’s be persistent at this, you can’t turn an aircraft carrier around in a minute.”
Chestnut said he understands well the problems facing many Schenectady families because of the “worm’s eye view” he got as a social worker. He said he counseled people across the city in all kinds of situations. His work has long been devoted to improving Schenectady, he said.
Correction 1 p.m. 5/8/19: This article has been changed to correct a statement from board candidate Veronica Cochrane regarding her experience with social services.