Schenectady’s two new school board members were elected on promises to strengthen community engagement and seek new ways to communicate with students, parents and staff.
Erica Brockmyer and Jamaica Miles were the two top voter-getters in Tuesday’s five-way school board race, unseating incumbent Andy Chestnut on their way to three-year terms beginning July 1. An all-female board will be set to take charge of the district come July after John Foley also departs the board.
Brockmyer, who works as a school counselor at the private Emma Willard after nearly a decade working at the Schenectady Boys and Girls Club, earned the most votes Tuesday with 779 cast in her favor. Miles, a longtime community activist who has lived in Schenectady throughout her life, received 667 votes, besting the next closest candidate by 160 votes.
Voters outside polling locations Tuesday expressed frustration with the current board’s handling of the district still-vacant superintendent position and called for “new blood” and change; those sentiments were reflected in the final vote count as Chestnut, the lone incumbent seeking a new term, trailed all other candidates.
Voter turnout, which surged last year after the school elections were switched to all mail-in balloting last year, fell back to the lower levels typical in years prior to the pandemic. In Schenectady, where over 3,700 residents voted last year, just over 1,400 residents voted on Tuesday. Two years ago just over 1,000 residents voted in the city’s annual school election.
A similar pattern emerged across the Capital Region, where voter turnout more than doubled in last year’s all-absentee vote. (Districts last year were required to send ballots to all eligible voters.) Compared to last year’s record level, voter turnout in this year’s school election dropped almost 68 percent, according to an analysis of vote tallies in nearly 60 Capital Region districts.
In Schenectady, both Brockmyer and Miles ran for the open board seats by calling for improved community engagement from the district.
“We want different – at a minimum,” Miles said of what she heard from residents during the campaign. “The number one message that I have heard repeatedly over the last year-and-a-half is that people see an opportunity to be heard and that they now have hope that things can be better and different.”
Brockmyer said she also heard from voters looking for a change and upset over how the board has handled the superintendent position, noting the superintendent was the top issue residents raised with her.
“They wanted new, fresh faces on the board,” Brockmyer said.
In terms of making real their promises to strengthen community engagement – regularly a top platform item among school board members – Brockmyer and Miles said the district needs to move beyond school board meetings and other well-trod settings to garner genuine community input. Milies said the district needs to think about the barriers that limit parents and others from voicing their concerns, citing the timing and location of meetings and the difficulty many people face in finding childcare to attend a board meeting or community forum. Miles, who committed to hosting a monthly community meeting of her own, said community engagement should start with asking people what format for engagement works best for them.
“I look forward to having conversations with the other board members about how we as a board will intentionally break down the barriers that excluded community members and some staff members and students to collectively come up with ways to meet where they are at and not simply expect them to show up to us,” Miles said.
Miles said she thinks through the lens of an organizer and that the district needs to more actively seek out community input, not just wait for people to show up for a board meeting, which many people with valid concerns will never do.
“I show up ensuring that voices are heard, whether it’s being on the outside as an advocate or as a board member,” Miles said. “I think it’s that much more important that I now have access to that decision-making body to bring those voices to the table.”
Brockmyer also highlighted the need to improve communication, suggesting the district website could be drastically improved. “It’s very hard for people to find information on there,” she said of the website.
The new members, joining with five current board members, will determine how to move forward with a new superintendent search – and how to involve the community.
Brockmyer said she supports a hybrid search process that guarantees candidate confidentiality in the early stages of the search but not necessarily the end stages when community members could be invited to join the search as the board narrows in on a new leader.
“I think we should have confidentiality for the applicant up until a point so we can get the best candidates,” Brockmyer said. “Then having community members later on but not just as a checkmark that we did, actually having them involved.”
Brockmyer said the district should open that community participation widely, not just invite a group of community members who have been involved in the past.
Miles said community engagement is critical for every decision the board makes, including hiring a new district leader.
“Any time there is an issue on the table for the school board if we have not actively and intentionally solicited feedback then we don’t have the information necessary to make the right decision,” Miles said.
“The seven people at the table are representative of a district that has almost 10,000 children, it is highly unlikely that between the seven of us and our backgrounds and understanding that we are able to by ourselves with no further knowledge or input make decisions knowing what those 10,000 students need and what their families would want.”