Schenectady school board member Andy Chestnut plans to seek a new three-year term, joining at least two other candidates, each seeking to claim one of the two open board seats up for election May 18.
Those challengers, Samuel Rose and Erica Brockmyer, on Monday split over how the board should handle a restart to its superintendent search, after district officials recently announced the board was unable to negotiate a contract with the sole finalist, leaving the board effectively back at square one.
While Rose called for a far more open process, including public forums where the community could directly engage the finalists for the position, Brockmyer said she agreed with the argument that a more closed search process enabled a stronger pool of candidates.
Rose, a 2006 Schenectady High School graduate who also ran for the board last year, said given the public nature of the superintendent position, public engagement should be part of the process for the finalists for the position. He said it may be possible to hold forums where the finalists could present their ideas to the Schenectady community and take questions from the public.
“It should absolutely be open to the public, it should be communicated to the public who the finalists are,” Rose said in an interview Monday. “The school board themselves and the district superintendent are supposed to be community leaders; this is not some corporate job, this is a public facing community service position.”
Rose, who emphasized improving board accountability and transparency as a core issue of his campaign, argued if a candidate was not willing to engage with the community that way — and make a public case for their candidacy for the position — they were not the right person for the job.
The school board months ago weighed the advantages and disadvantages of an “open” versus a “closed” search process. On the one hand, an open search enables more public involvement but could turn away more experienced candidates unwilling to go public with a desire to seek a new job for fear of causing issues with their current job. A more closed process maintains the confidentiality of candidates but limits public involvement.
Working with Anita Murphy, Capital Region BOCES district superintendent, the school board landed on a so-called “hybrid” approach to the search, which relied on community members and district employees to offer input into the job description and characteristics, as well as a limited way to interview finalists. But by the time the board narrowed the list of candidates to a final two to go before community groups, one candidate had dropped, leaving the board just one finalist to get community input on, drawing community complaints that the process was not more open to the public. The board ultimately was unable to come to an agreement with the final candidate, forcing the board to meet Wednesday to regroup.
Brockmyer said she thinks the process can be better communicated to the public through regular updates outside of school board meetings and called for involving community members as much as possible, but she stopped short of calling for the type of open process Rose said he favored.
Brockmyer, a school counselor at the private Emma Willard School in Troy and former leader at the Schenectady Boys and Girls Club, said she agreed with the board’s decision to not publicize finalists for the position, echoing the argument about attracting the best possible pool of candidates. Even if a candidate was willing to come forward, she said, they may be turned off by the potential backlash they could cause in their current job if it became public they were seeking a new position.
“I do totally agree you are going to limit the candidate pool if it is completely open from the start,” Brockmyer said Monday. “It limits who you get, it really does… I don’t think that will determine if they will be a good superintendent or not, if everyone in the community knows their name ahead of time or not.”
Chestnut also defended the board’s search process, making the case that a far more open process would turn off candidates with the kind of experience community members have said they want in a new superintendent.
“I think we did it right,” Chestnut said of the search process. “I know the community has in various ways indicated its interest for a more open search, and to an extent that may in fact contradict what we also heard from that community that they want someone with superintendent experience.”
A contested race
Chestnut on Friday said he had decided to seek another term, giving district voters a contested race when two seats go up for election May 18. Board President John Foley has said he does not plan to seek re-election this year.
Chestnut, who previously served on the board a decade ago and returned after winning a vacated two-year term in 2019, said he wanted to continue the work the district has done to strengthen graduation rates, hire devoted staff and implement equity-focused policies.
“I feel running again in this exact moment is appropriate because there is a lot of instability,” he said. “We are on the right track and we need to find the new people and programs to move it forward… It’s a big system and it takes time for change to stick.”
The school board will have a lot of challenges to take on over the next three years, including how to spend millions of dollars in federal stimulus aid meant to help the district recover from the pandemic.
Chestnut said he would like to see some of that money used to seed an expansion of healthcare and childcare programs that with an initial investment could then establish revenue streams going into the future. For example, Chestnut said, the district could use some of that aid to work with Hometown Health to expand health clinics to more Schenectady schools and offer students mental health support. While building out the facilities requires startup funding, the clinic itself can be sustained largely through revenue from private and public healthcare providers who pay for the services offered at the clinic. He said a similar model could be employed to help rebuild a depleted childcare system in the district.
“Finding ways to prioritize ways to use those funds for healthcare and childcare would be a huge win for the community,” Chestnut said. “There is a steady revenue stream accessible if you can figure out how to get it going.”
When asked about a notice of claim former Superintendent Larry Spring has filed against the district, Chestnut and the two challengers said they wanted to allow the process to move forward in the courts. They said they would be loathe to agree to a settlement with Spring — who argues the district violated a separation agreement after news leaked that the district had investigated sexual harassment allegations against Spring prior to his leaving the position — but Chestnut said he also wouldn’t want to spend money on defending a case that would be better used to support students.
Rose said a settlement with Spring to avoid further litigation would be “just another backroom agreement” similar to the original separation agreement with Spring.
“I would want to avoid any type of settlement agreement,” said Rose, who works as a contracts administrator with the state Education Department.
Rose also used the notice of claim from Spring as another example of what he argued were multiple instances where the board created deeper problems in attempts to avoid public accountability. He said he hasn’t seen improved transparency over the last year.
“There was a closed approach to both and (the board) ended up in an arguably worse-off place now… we won’t have a (new) superintendent… and we could potentially be on the hook owing Larry Spring even more money,” Rose said of how the board has handled Spring’s departure and the search for his replacement. “Openness, transparency and accountability is not only good governance, it’s often cheaper in the long run.”