Jamaica Miles, a longtime community activist and Schenectady City School District parent, on Friday announced she is running for one of two school board seats up for election May 18.
Miles, who was born and raised in Schenectady, for a decade has championed increased funding for Schenectady schools, working with statewide advocacy groups and in 2018 joining a lawsuit alleging the state is depriving Schenectady students of a “sound basic education” by underfunding the district.
Miles is the mother of two current students, in fourth and 10th grades, a high school teacher and a rising pre-kindergarten student. In recent years, she has been a central figure in racial justice protests across the region, co-founding the Schenectady-based group All of Us to focus on housing rights, and, in the wake of national protests stemming from police killings of Black people, police policies and practices.
She said she doesn’t plan to leave her activism behind but felt like now was a moment to seek a seat at the table where critical decisions are made. The fight she joined years ago to call on lawmakers to fully fund the state’s core education aid formula culminated this month with a promise written into the state budget that the formula would be fully funded over three years – a promise that if kept would bolster Schenectady’s school budget by around $40 million a year. Miles hopes for a say in how the district plans to invest that aid – and a separate tranche of around $60 million in federal aid – in supports for students.
“I have fought long and hard to ensure we get the resources our district needs, but we also need to make sure those resources are spent in the best interests of our children, and it requires people at the table who will be strong advocates for our children,” Miles said in an announcement she made on Facebook live Friday. “And if I have done nothing else, I have proven time and time again that I will always be a strong advocate for our children, that all children receive a quality education.”
Miles joins incumbent Andy Chestnut and challengers Erica Brockmyer and Samuel Rose in an election for two open board seats May 18. She said she made the decision final this week. After discussing the race with someone on the phone, she asked her fourth-grader what she thought of mom running for school board. She wanted mom to improve the cafeteria food.
“It got me thinking about where we are in the school district, the opportunity for change and the history I have advocating for our children,” she said. “I truly believe that there are moments in people’s lives where you see an opportunity to use your skills, your talent, your knowledge to best help in whatever way that is … and it feels like the right moment.”
Miles emphasized the importance of genuine and authentic community engagement, meeting people where they are and working to remove the barriers that have prevented the district from gathering input and feedback on a large scale. She said projects should begin with that engagement, not include community engagement as an afterthought after district leaders have already developed ideas and plans.
“You need to engage them at the start of the process, not show up later with a piece of paper that says here are our thoughts now give us feedback,” Miles said.
When it comes to the superintendent search that will fall squarely on the shoulders of the board members elected next month, Miles said she didn’t think setting superintendent experience as a necessary benchmark for candidates would result in the kind of diverse pool of candidates the board is seeking. She also questioned whether a search led by BOCES would accomplish that.
(When the board this week discussed how to move forward with a new search after the last search did not result in a contract, Chestnut said he feels more strongly now that the board should look for someone with direct experience as a superintendent.)
“The idea that we are already prioritizing we want someone who has superintendent experience is racist,” Miles said. “Because we know about the disproportionality of individuals in administrative roles and how difficult it is for Black and indigenous people [to rise to those positions].”
Board members appeared split at their most recent meeting about how open to make the newest search process and whether to use community and staff members to interview finalists and offer input for the board to consider.
While she didn’t say explicitly what kind of search she would back, Miles noted the importance of community engagement in finding a leader so critical to the well-being of the community.
“We really need to start at the beginning,” Miles said of the search process. “I look forward to the conversations about why one person feels one way or another and hearing from the community about how they feel since we are hiring someone responsible for the safety and well-being of their children.”
Miles also focused on discipline matters in the district, asking what it would look like for the district to pursue “ending in-school and out-of-school suspensions.”
“We need to be sure we use restorative practices, not punitive ones,” she said.
Miles said she knows what it’s like to face the kind of heavy-handed student discipline that can further disconnect a student from their education – or turn them off it completely. She said she was kicked out of Mont Pleasant High School her senior year, leaving her to earn a GED before pursuing higher education.
“‘Get out of here and don’t come back,’” she recalled her class principal telling her. “I believed that I couldn’t go back to that building.”
Miles said no other Schenectady child should have to face something similar.
“I will do whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen to any other student,” Miles said.