There will be a lot on the agenda for the Schenectady City school board as its members start their new academic year on July 1: find a new superintendent, absorb rolling state aid cuts and potentially open schools to students in the middle of a global pandemic.
Voters have a lot to mull within the next couple of weeks as they participate in an unprecedented absentee-ballot only election to fill three open board seats. Three incumbents – Dharam Hitlall, Bernice Rivera and Katherine Stephens – will be joined on the ballot by three would-be newcomers – Nohelani Etienne, Princella Learry and Samuel Rose.
Rivera, Hitlall and Learry, who ran for a board seat last year, are running as a slate, while the other candidates are running independently. When the ballots are counted, though, the top three vote-getters will win the three-year terms beginning July 1.
This year’s election also presents a major wild card as districts scramble to shift traditional in-person elections to absentee-ballot only for the first time ever. The district will be mailing out ballots to tens of thousands of district residents early next month, giving voters a small window of time to return the ballots in the mail.
Ballots must be received by the district no later than June 9 at 5 p.m. The ballots will include prepaid return postage and can be sent back by mail or dropped off at one of a handful of ballot dropboxes that will be located at schools around the city. The candidates will appear on the ballot alphabetically by last name. Here’s a look at a who is running:
Etienne, the mother of three girls in the school district, said she is running to improve community engagement with the district, ensure students feel safe in school and bring the perspective of a parent of current district students to the table.
She said she decided to run for the board after talking with her daughters about some of the disruptions and fights that happen at the high school, causing anxiety and concern among students and parents. She attended a meeting last year when dozens of parents and other student family members packed the high school cafeteria to call for improvements to school safety.
“I realize there is some opportunity for things to change,” she said. “I’m really passionate about, first and foremost, wanting our children to feel safe…. I didn’t want them to be in a position where they were afraid to go to school.”
Etienne, who graduated from Schenectady High School in 1998, said she thinks the district needs to do a much better job engaging families and community members in the decision-making process. She said the district should not only dramatically increase its use of online and other surveys, but also think about other innovative ways to include students and other community members more often.
“I want to make it on a grander scale and more of that active involvement,” she said.
As financial constraints continue to tighten around the district, Etienne said it was important to protect student activities like the arts and drama that serve as an outlet for students to engage in school.
Etienne works as a manager at the Mutual Liberty Insurance Company and has served on the board of directors for the YWCA of Northeastern New York and been involved in local youth dance troups.
She’s the only candidate, and if elected, would be the only board member with children currently attending schools within the district. She said that perspective would serve her well, because parents invariably view the district from a different perspective.
“I’m just hoping that if elected and I get the opportunity to serve, I would be able to bring some different ideas since I do have children (in the schools),” she said. “I do think that is a unique perspective that I could bring to it.”
Hitlall is seeking his third term on the school board, running on a shared platform with Rivera and Learry.
The trio said they support an open superintendent search that will give teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders an opportunity to interview candidates for the position and offer input before the board makes the final selection.
“We don’t have a superintendent right now, and I want the parents and students to have an opportunity to be a part of selecting the new superintendent,” Hitlall said. “Those are families that represent the kids that go to school; we have to have input from the families.”
He said he wants to find a new superintendent who is approachable and parents feel comforting going to talk to and share concerns. Hitlall, who has called for the board to conduct a national search, said he is willing to take the time needed to find the right person for the job.
Former Superintendent Larry Spring resigned abruptly in March, and the board at the time signed off on an exit agreement that include a non-disclosure clause and guarantees the board would not disparage. The Times Union has since reported the departure followed an internal investigation into accusations Spring sexually harassed female employees. While Hitlall has refused to comment on the situation, he said he was ready to move forward.
“It’s a personnel issue,” Hitlall said when asked about Spring’s departure. “I can’t speak about that issue, but we’ve got to move forward.”
Hitlall said he has still pushed the board to become more open and transparent and said he would like to see the board develop a new approach to reviewing the performance of the next superintendent.
“Transparency is a very big thing,” he said.
Hitlall said he sees his role as representing students and families in the community and promised the district’s efforts to improve outcomes for students of color won’t be watered down as long as he and others on the board are pressing to keep the focus there.
“Schenectady is a very diverse city,” he said. “Most of the parents feel they don’t have a word or say; we are those folks standing up for their rights, their children’s rights and speaking on behalf of them,” Hitlall said.
Learry has a long history with the Schenectady City School District, graduating from Mont Pleasant High School in 1982, sending two boys through the schools and working in the district for nearly a decade.
She said she wants to serve as a bridge for the community, helping to elevate the concerns she hears from residents and families to the level of the school board.
“We are another ear for the community, so I would promote being more open and letting people know we are addressing their issues,” Learry said.
Learry also said the school board should open the superintendent search process to include as many stakeholders as possible.
“It should be open, it should be community stakeholders having a voice in the selections,” she said. “That includes parents, students, people who work at our community centers, not just the board. It should be open to everybody who makes up a school community.”
While the school board has been advised that some potential candidates, including some with the most experience, are reluctant to apply if they know the search will be open, Learry said she would be concerned about a candidate unwilling to participate in an open process with stakeholder interviews.
As the district moves forward with plans to reopen schools under what are likely to be drastically different conditions than the last time schools were open, with social distancing policies likely to be strictly enforced, Learry said the board will need to closely monitor how the district’s plans unfold.
“It’s going to be constant; every week we need to follow up with the progress… get input from people,” she said. “The board’s going to be busy, because this is a historic time and we need to think forward.”
She said the district will need to focus on students’ mental health needs and regularly reach out to students and families to ensure they are connected to school and doing well – especially as students may still have to learn remotely for part of next school year.
She said running with Hitlall and Rivera means the trio will mark a stronger presence on the board if elected. And Learry emphasized her own unique position in the community – she was born and raised in Schenectady, growing up on Hamilton Hill – helps her tap into a variety of different perspectives.
“I represent the community,” Learry said. “I grew up here, I went to school here, I work here in the district. I’m privy to a lot of different opportunities for feedback and resources for the city.”
Rivera is seeking her second term on the board, calling for an open superintendent search and promising a new approach to holding the superintendent accountable to both the board and community.
“It is critical to us that those stakeholders are involved as far as they can be with the interview process,” she said of allowing parents, teachers, students and others to interview superintendent candidates.
She said she is looking for a superintendent with strong interpersonal skills who can genuinely engage with different people connected to the district and who understands and appreciates the diversity of Schenectady – diversity along a variety of lines.
While Rivera joined the rest of the board in signing off on Spring’s departure and the non-disclosure agreement and again declined a chance to comment on it, she said that she did push for greater accountability during her three years on the board. She noted that she raised questions about Spring’s contract extension and asked that the board adopt a new process to review his annual performance – even if she ultimately joined the consensus of the board to allow the extension to go through.
“I have voiced in different ways throughout the three years my concerns about some of the decisions that have been made,” she said.
She said she is open to a proposal to have teachers at different building levels serve as liaisons to the board and can help communicate the concerns of educators directly to the board. She also said she wanted the board to explore establishing student representative positions on the school board – a formal non-voting board spot for students that many area districts have. While the board has previously discussed the idea, it instead moved forward with a plan to host student groups for regular presentations.
Rivera said it may be possible to do both, again raising the topic of the student representative at the board’s most recent meeting.
“I think it’s extremely critical if we want to mold and develop youth leaders, let’s model it by allowing them to be on the board,” Rivera said.
Rivera, who worked as a middle school teacher in the district for nearly a decade, is now a training specialist with New York State United Teachers. She is one of the board’s most probing members, regularly asking district officials to explain how something will impact various groups. She said she tries to ask questions from the perspective of the different stakeholders who will be impacted.
“As a board member we hear a variety of different perspectives,” she said. “I really believe I have to take all of those into account and create a picture that can impact support our district as a whole.”
Rose, a 2006 Schenectady High School graduate, is another lifelong Schenectady resident seeking a seat on the board.
After high school, he went to college at Cornell University and earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Buffalo. He works at the state Education Department and said he is both rooted in the community and understands how large education institutions work.
He said the community’s future well-being depends on an engaged and informed public.
“This starts with a sound public education that teaches students how to think for themselves not just what to think,” Rose said. “I’m running because I think this position is one way I can help make Schenectady a better place for all of its residents.”
Rose described the school board’s chief responsibility as providing “public oversight and community control” of the city’s public schools and said his approach as a board member would flow from that, serving as a bridge between the community and the administrators running the day-to-day operations of city schools.
“The school board is a way to make the voices of residents of Schenectady heard and to channel that action through the administration,” he said.
Rose said he wished the school board had handled Spring’s recent departure with more transparency and that he opposes the use of non-disclosure agreements by public officials.
“I do certainly wonder if there was a better way for the board to handle it in a more open and democratic process, so the people of Schenectady can know what is actually going on with the school district administration,” Rose said. “I’m skeptical of the use of nondisclosure agreements by elected officials.”
Rose, who taught while working on his doctorate and said his experience in the education department would serve him well as a board member, said it will be critical to protect the integrity of public education in the recovery and aftermath of the pandemic. He said it is important to think about schools within the context of the broader communities they serve, calling for partnerships throughout the city that support education and community development.
“Schools do more than just teach people, schools do a lot more than just instruction,” Rose said. “Schools are institutions of the community… . Our solutions to the education problems need to also be larger community solutions.”
Stephens is also seeking a second term on the board and said her time so far will help her be an even more effective advocate for students and families if elected to another term.
“With three years under my belt, I’m in an even more confident position to push those forward,” Stephens said. “As we look to uncertain funding in future years, it’s [important] we keep that focus on equity, cultural relevancy and understanding where our students are coming from.”
Stephens said she has learned a lot during her three years on the board, noting the two years she has served as board vice president and accommodations she has earned for completing a certain number of school board training sessions.
She emphasized the importance of continuing the district’s equity emphasis and its focus on making school more relevant for students and cast the sole no vote on next school year’s budget, arguing an administrative reorganization should not have eliminated a position focused solely on equity and culturally-responsive education.
“I’m really proud of the increased trauma-sensitive program, I’m proud of the strategic plan putting equity first in a lot of our language and that’s what I want to continue doing,” she said.
Stephens said she supported a “hybrid” superintendent search that blended aspects of the open search her colleagues on the ballot have called for with a more closed process that protects the anonymity of job candidates. She said public participation would be at its highest at the start of the process and narrow as the board got closer to identifying finalists and selecting a new superintendent.
“I want to have as many applicants as we can get and if there are talented applicants that need a closed search to (apply),” she said. “I want stakeholders involved, I want them involved as much as possible; I also want great applicants.”
She said she wants a new superintendent who is empathetic and has experience working in a large school district and with the populations of students present in Schenectady. She said the leader will need to advocate for Schenectady and its long-running need for increased funding.
“I want someone who can really drive the cultural competency pieces and someone who is able to speak on a large scale about the funding needs we faced even before we [started] dealing with this new crisis,” she said.