Schenectady

Five candidates seek two Schenectady school board seats; Hear from the candidates in their own words

The Schenectady School Board candidates - Top row: Chestnut, Miles, Rose; Bottom Row: Sprauve, Brockmyer

The Schenectady School Board candidates - Top row: Chestnut, Miles, Rose; Bottom Row: Sprauve, Brockmyer

Schenectady City School District residents will have a chance to select two school board members Tuesday, members who will serve as the district looks to fill key leadership positions, including superintendent; to rebuild trust with the community and staff; and to help students recover academically, emotionally and socially from the pandemic.

With new three-year terms set to begin July 1, the newly elected members will have a say in the process the school board relies on to identify a new superintendent — after the current board failed to reach an agreement with the sole finalist of its last search. That search followed the abrupt resignation of former Superintendent Larry Spring more than a year ago.

The new members will also play a role as the district continues to rehire scores of positions cut at the start of the school year and expands staffing further under a proposed budget. They will also be at the table as the district invests nearly $60 million in federal aid over the three years of their term on the board.

The candidates on Tuesday’s ballot offer voters a range of backgrounds and experiences — from mental health and school counseling practitioners to a community activist and filmmaker — and at least one new board member will be seated this summer.

Five candidates are running for the open seats: incumbent Andrew Chestnut; community activist Jamaica Miles; Schenectady graduate and state Education Department staffer Samuel Rose; former district employee and local filmmaker Prince Sprauve; and school counselor and former Schenectady Boys & Girls Club leader Erica Brockmyer.

The Gazette gave all the candidates a chance to respond to questions about key issues facing the district in the coming months and years. The responses appear in the order the candidates are listed on the ballot.

Name: Erica Brockmyer

Occupation: School counselor

How long have you lived in the district? 29 years

Do you have children in district schools? No

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

Three challenges I believe the SCSD faces are ensuring accountability of the purpose of the district, preparing students for their futures, and the direction of social & emotional wellness in schools. Accountability looks like focusing on certain goals at a time to ensure we are effective in our practices and then moving on to other initiatives. Forward thinking prepares students for their greatest potential; ensuring that the skills they are learning in math, humanities, and the arts are preparing them for the greater world around them. By focusing on social & emotional wellness we are preparing students with the tools to navigate life in and out of school. 

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

I bring a unique perspective as a candidate for SCSD School Board. My experience as a SCSD substitute teacher has given me firsthand experience in the Schenectady Schools. I also worked for many years with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady as a Program Director, Unit Director, and Counseling Director. On any given day I was spending upwards of 10 hours a day with the young people of Schenectady. It is this experience and understanding that motivates my desire to play a role in making decisions and creating policies that impact our students. 

How should the district utilize the nearly $60 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years? 

It is important to note that there will be specific guidelines and parameters attached to this money that will need to be taken into account. Our role as board members should be to ensure that the money is being used in the way that it was intended to be used. 

What are you looking for in a new superintendent, and what process should the board use to identify and hire that person?

I believe that continuing with the hybrid approach of hiring a new superintendent is the right way to go. This approach allows candidates to have their privacy, while also allowing a variety of stakeholders to be involved. I think it would be important for community members to participate in this search, possibly an opt-in committee. [There are] possible repercussions of a current employer learning their current administrator was considering leaving; we have to be understanding of that. If we want the strongest candidate pool, it is imperative to follow the hybrid model with optional participation from the community. 

Describe the current relationship between the district and the community it serves, and how it can be improved.  

I think there is room for improvement between the district and the community and we need to be creative and innovative with our ideas. Create a more user-friendly website. A more inclusive site where people can access what they’re looking for with ease. Another way to improve the relationship is by providing the community with needed resources. This could look like after-school programs in all schools, stronger bonds with existing community organizations that provide services that the schools don’t or can’t. We have a variety of needs in the district that we should be able to help our students and their families with, utilizing the many resources in Schenectady.

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

One major lesson learned during the pandemic is that all children should be learning 21st-century skills, including how to effectively use technology, in school. Our students should be equipped with the skills to succeed in their future. This past year has been incredibly difficult on not just our students, but on all of the adults within the school system as well. This understanding should dictate our work moving forward. For the new school year we need to ensure that there are intervention strategies in place for learning loss but also supports to address the social and wellness loss experienced by all.

Name: Jamaica Miles

Occupation: Advocate/organizer

How long have you lived in the district? My entire life, almost 47 years

Children in district schools? 10th-grade English teacher; 10th-grader; fourth-grader; and upcoming preschooler

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

As we continue to assess the impact of the pandemic, we must look to create a welcoming and inclusive environment that values the experiences of our students, families and staff; that creates a culture of communication and transparency. We must invest in staffing, programs and services, and expand partnership opportunities for trades, STEAM and sports. The process to hire a new superintendent must be inclusive, which means seeking input from our community and breaking down the systemic barriers to marginalized candidates. Lastly, reopening our buildings must be done with a holistic approach for the safety and well-being of everyone. 

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

I was born and raised in the city of Schenectady, am the mother of four, and a longtime community leader and advocate. For 10 years, I worked hard to win the funding owed to Schenectady Schools and I continue to fight to ensure that our schools are a positive environment for all students. For 20 years, I’ve been an advocate in our schools, working with parents, teachers, students and community members. In addition, I’ve worked with individuals and groups across NYS and the nation, learning about best practices and possible solutions.

How should the district utilize the nearly $60 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years?

Schenectady needs to invest in an increase in support staff, guidance counselors, social workers, specialized student services and wrap-around services that will assist in repairing the academic, emotional and social gap that was deepened by the pandemic. Those services can be maintained by the increases in state funding that are scheduled over the next 3 years. There should also be an investment in the creation of culturally responsive curriculum across all subject areas, the acquiring of new technology, and the purchase of other learning materials that would allow for accessibility to all students.

What are you looking for in a new superintendent, and what process should the board use to identify and hire that person? 

Schenectady Schools need a superintendent who has the vision, experience and skills necessary to move forward an anti-racist equitable plan built on restorative practices for the benefit of all our students. The Board needs to conduct an open superintendent search through a transparent process that is inclusive of the community. To ensure that we hire a superintendent who will have the right set of skills, knowledge and understanding requires community involvement and a non-bias process. Including input from our community will raise questions, comments and concerns that will ensure we find the best candidate for our district.

Describe the current relationship between the district and the community it serves, and how it can be improved. 

Many community members have a mistrust of the district. There have been negative experiences from miscommunication, lack of awareness, or insensitivity. Those experiences frequently reflect the racial disparities that exist along lines of academic success and discipline. Part of the issue is also the lack of cultural competency and transparency. There must be an intentional effort to make all buildings welcoming and inclusive to ensure that parents and students are heard and valued, and that community involvement starts at the beginning of all processes. For too long, decisions have been made for the community, not with the community.

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

The district needs to fully invest in our district now with the resources available so that our students, teachers and staff have what is needed without fear-mongering about the next “rainy day.” We are still struggling to survive through the current monsoon. We need to be holistic and restorative about the safety and well-being of our community. We must recognize how important the staff, programs and services are to our students and build on that, and continue to publicly advocate for the funding owed to ensure we are able to give every child the opportunity to succeed.

Name: Prince Sprauve 

Occupation: CEO, Quiet On Set LLC (Media Production Company) 

How long have you lived in the district? 20 years 

Children in district schools? Yes, I have two kids in the district. 

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them? 

In my opinion, the most important challenges the district faces right now are safety, finding a new Superintendent and how to allocate the funding to best serve our students in the district. 

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board? 

I’ve been serving kids in Schenectady for over 20 years and spent 10 years working at the district before I launched my own nonprofit, Told By Us! This program allowed disadvantaged students to tell stories through film and music. We built film projects like “Fast Life” & “Cradle” that displayed some of the horrors that our kids face on a daily basis outside of school. I bring a unique perspective to the board that should be valued and taken into account when making big decisions. Everyone has a voice and no community should be left unheard. 

How should the district utilize the nearly $60 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years? 

The district should focus on ramping up its vocational programs, equipping the teachers with more resources in the classroom, safety, healthier and better lunches for our students, supporting our paraprofessionals, funding the fine arts and addressing social & mental health needs. 

What are you looking for in a new superintendent, and what process should the board use to identify and hire that person?

We have one of the most diverse school districts in New York. We need a superintendent that will not only be accountable to the school but to the community as well. We don’t need a perfect superintendent, we need a willing, passionate, bold leader that will not be afraid to be on the front line to address the needs of our students. 

Describe the current relationship between the district and the community it serves, and how it can be improved. 

I think this is one of the areas the district could really improve. We have to understand the type of community we serve before we make life-changing decisions. Making decisions with the community instead of for the community. Making attempts to engage the people you serve is vital because it creates the image to parents that we care and we are here to collaborate. Projects like “Fast Life” & “Cradle” were used as tools to link communities together, strategize and work in a collaborative manner to solve real issues going on in our community. 

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future? 

The biggest lesson that we should take away from the pandemic is that a degree does not guarantee anything and that we should explore every field and career path for our students. Trades, vocational programs, stocks, real estate and how to leverage the internet to advance your career are crucial for our kids.

Name: Samuel W. Rose

Occupation: Contract management specialist at the state Education Department

How long have you lived in the district? Not counting my time away at university, I have lived in Schenectady since my parents moved here when I was 6 months old back in 1988. 

Children in district schools? No

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

The Schenectady school district is facing a crisis of leadership, trust and accountability. Between the nondisclosure agreement, the botched superintendent search and the termination of hundreds of employees, etc., the school district has lost the faith of its employees and the people of Schenectady. You regain that by installing transparency and accountability at each level: starting with the board and superintendent. You regain the trust of the employees through increased hiring, improved working conditions and employee influence in decision-making for their units/departments. Without solving this organizational problem, you cannot readily solve any other of the myriad problems facing the district.

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

No one can understand the student experience in Schenectady schools unless you have been one. I grew up in Schenectady, played youth sports here and graduated from the high school. Schenectady is my hometown and I want the best for the people here. Others may have experience elsewhere, but I was raised here, went to school here and took that preparation to gain an undergraduate degree from Cornell University, and two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo. I work in State Education financial administration, specifically with contracts. I chose to bring that experience, education and insight back home.

How should the district utilize the nearly $60 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years?

District priorities for improving education and other services should be based on the Needs Assessment report from February 2021. Hiring more teachers/workers and reducing class sizes should be prioritized even in normal times, but especially potentially coming out of a pandemic where there is concern about “learning loss.” The budgetary focus needs to center on producing the conditions that facilitate quality education for all, a safe environment for all students and workers (including coronavirus testing and other procedures), and operating the district in the interests of the people working there and the people to whom they are directly providing services.

What are you looking for in a new superintendent, and what process should the board use to identify and hire that person?

The new superintendent must be a competent administrator: someone that can manage a large organization and a $200 million annual budget. An open search process is the only democratic approach. It is the only approach based in both transparency and community involvement. Given the state of distrust within the public and district workforce toward the administration and board, an open search process is the only one that would have any legitimacy in the eyes of the public. If a potential candidate is scared away by an open search process, then that already makes them the wrong person for the job.

Describe the current relationship between the district and the community it serves, and how it can be improved. 

There is a deep and justifiable distrust of the actions of the administration and the school board within the public and district employees. We saw this in the outrage over the nondisclosure agreement with Larry Spring last year, and at the beginning of this school year when the district prematurely terminated hundreds of employees while leaving administrator positions and salaries intact. You improve this situation by requiring transparency and accountability for the administration and the board, by prioritizing the interests of district employees and hiring more of them, and by repairing the relationship with Schenectady through community outreach and involvement.

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

Given the recent priorities and performance of the board and administration, the lessons learned were more what not to do. There is not much positive to reflect on from the past year as the district did not adequately address any of my campaign issues from last year. The Needs Assessment report lays out what the priorities of the district should be as stated by the employees. We must prioritize student and employee health and safety, and we must prioritize quality education. The district needs to improve its communication internally and externally, and conduct outreach to and involve the community.

Name: Andy Chestnut

Occupation: Clinical social worker (LCSWR)

How long have you lived in the district? 42 years overall, including 17 years since moving back in 2004 

Children in district schools? None. Two grown children with families of their own, in Wappingers Falls and Brooklyn. (I am myself a graduate of the district.)

What are the most important challenges facing the district right now and how should the district be working to address them?

  1. Fill open positions: superintendent and several direct reports
  2. Reopen schools fully yet safely post-COVID
  3. Leverage Equity Policy: Work to increase feelings of safety and inclusion
  4. Address Needs Assessment issues: Build trust, standardize curriculum, improve communication, increase delegation, improve organization structure

No. 1 will be addressed by appointing a long-term interim succeeding Dr. Bochniak, while filling other key positions.

No. 2 and No. 3 are both being addressed now by Dr. Bochniak and the SCSD team.

No. 4  Dr. Bochniak is working to address items that are quick to fix; new interim superintendent will need to engage with remaining longer-term issues. 

How has your experience and background prepared you to serve on the school board?

I combine knowledge of Schenectady with extensive experience elsewhere; decades of business background with more recent experience as a pyschotherapist. I know how to change the culture of large organizations. I have successfully done so three times. 

Accomplishments during board service: attendance zones created; K-5, 6-8, 10-12 grade format for elementary, middle and high schools implemented; long-range capital plan – Phase 2 of four nearly completed, $135 million invested; 2009 graduation rate (prior to my first election) was 53%, improving to 68% by 2019; (74% in 2020’s COVID year.) Tax levy for 2021-2022 lower than 2011-2012.

How should the district utilize the nearly $60 million in federal aid it will have to spend over the next few school years?

SCSD (together with other local partners) should use the funds to build out infrastructure for pediatric health care and affordable community child care which can then generate their own revenue streams after these once-in-a-lifetime funds are exhausted. Connecting these systems to the public safety system is also essential. Refer to my comments posted on the League of Women Voters’ candidate forum for more details on these ideas.

What are you looking for in a new superintendent, and what process should the board use to identify and hire that person?

The District needs a leader who will engender trust from all stakeholders and focus on the need for a more standardized curriculum, while at the same time continuing the district’s equity work so that all students get the support they need to achieve their potential.

In terms of the superintendent search, my top priority is to do what’s best for the children of the district. Available evidence demonstrates that the more open the search process, the fewer candidates with superintendent experience apply. (For details of that evidence, see my online submission to the LWV candidate forum.) 

Describe the current relationship between the district and the community it serves, and how it can be improved. 

In working on the Equity Policy subcommittee, the community groups seemed engaged and empowered as they partnered with the district to help eliminate inequities.  

What lessons should the district learn from the pandemic that can help it be better in the future?

Certainly, we learned that district students, families and staff experienced great difficulties and demonstrated great resilience during the pandemic.

Yet, the most important lesson of this pandemic is the requirement for leaders to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable and especially when nobody wants to hear it.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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