SCHENECTADY — Four candidates are seeking two seats on the Schenectady City School District Board of Education in an election that has become fiercely political.
The May 17 election comes on the heels of a controversial 4-3 vote by the board in favor of expanding a community engagement officer program that would place up to six police officers in city schools over the next three years at a cost of $300,000 to the district.
Dozens of community members, and organizations like the New York Civil Liberties Union, have written letters or spoke during public comment periods expressing concerns about the program and arguing that police have no place in schools and their presence would traumatize students and add to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Students walked out of class in protest of the vote, leading to accusation that Jamaica Miles, a school board member and community activist who has been critical of the program, was using students to promote her political agenda. Miles has denied organizing the protest, but admitted to providing advice to students after they reached out, and accused the board’s leadership of playing politics by failing to address her privately before falsely accusing her of something she didn’t do publicly.
City Republicans, meanwhile, have called on Miles to resign and thrown their support behind Board President Catherine Lewis, who is seeking reelection, and Vivian Parsons, painting the pair as pro-police and arguing their election will help secure the safety of students in the district.
Board member Ann Reilly is not seeking reelection.
The race’s two other candidates, Kristen Holler and Emily Willey-Aulet, are running on the same ticket, with platforms that include ensuring all students and families in the district have a voice, with both vowing to continue the conversation around the community engagement program to ensure all concerns are addressed.
Meanwhile, the district is putting forward a $239 million spending plan, that includes $20 million in new spending and no new taxes. The additional money comes from an increase in state aid and $4 million in repair reserves for various facility upgrades throughout the district.
In addition, a ballot proposition allowing the district to create a capital fund using unspent funds to help cover the cost of future capital projects of up to $5 million is also being proposed.
The Schenectady NAACP will host a candidates forum on Monday beginning at 6:30 p.m. The League of Women’s Voters will host a similar forum at the Schenectady High School auditorium Wednesday from 7-8:30 p.m. ahead of the May 17 vote.
The Daily Gazette spoke with each candidate about their platforms. Here are their responses in the order each will appear on the ballot.
Parsons, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the City Council last year as a Republican, said she was weighing a school board run for months, but finally decided to run following recent controversy surrounding the community engagement officer program.
Ensuring students and faculty feel safe during class is Parsons’ main priority. She said the issue of adding police to city schools has become politicized and that there are individuals on the board who are against the program that have been pushing misinformation, though she declined to name anyone specifically.
“Students and our faculty need and deserve a safe, healthy environment to teach in and to learn in,” she said. “And I believe that having community engagement officers in the schools, given the issues that have been prevalent in the high school for so long, is crucial in an effort to make that happen.”
Parsons is no stranger to school board meetings.
Last summer, she spoke publicly urging the board not to enforce the state’s mask mandate, a position she said she stands by. She added that she is against a vaccine mandate for student-athletes.
“I’m not in support of any governing body telling a parent what they have to do for their child,” she said.
Parsons said Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. has been doing a good job since being appointed last year, pointing to his ongoing efforts to make schools community hubs and this year’s proposed budget that would fill dozens of vacant teacher positions and bolster mental health services for students.
She’s also in support of the district’s efforts to address issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, including the creation of a pathway program designed to create teachers of color, though she said the district must be mindful that diversity extends beyond race and includes things like viewpoints and backgrounds.
“As far as diversity, equity and inclusion is concerned, I feel that our superintendent is definitely doing everything he can to push us in the right direction, and I support him,” Parsons said.
Lewis is running on a platform of experience.
She has served on the Board of Education for the past 12 years and has been the board’s president twice in that time: First between 2010-17 and again since 2021.
Lewis also serves as the Area 7 director for the New York State School Boards Association, where she represents district’s throughout Albany, Columbia, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren and Washington counties, and has been involved with the National School Board Association.
“I think experience matters, as well as enthusiasm and energy,” she said. “I’ve missed one meeting in 12 years.”
Lewis, a retired General Electric worker with a history working with area non-profits, said she enjoys serving on the board and has fought tirelessly for the students and families in the district since she was first elected.
If elected, Lewis said she would like to see the district work towards developing more pathway programs so students have a career path prior to graduating.
She said it’s an “exciting time” to serve on the school board, noting the increase in state funding the district has received following years of advocacy.
“It’s exciting to have more resources available to use for the first time after years of advocating for it,” she said. “The opportunity to do more for students, with students. There’s just so many opportunities for them that it would be excellent to bring them into our school district.”
Lewis has served on the diversity, equity and inclusion committee for the state’s School Boards Association since 2020, and helped create the district’s own diversity, equity and inclusion policy, which passed unanimously last year.
She was also one of four school board members who voted in favor of the community engagement officer program, which has drawn fierce criticism from some community members who have argued that police have no place in schools and their presence would only serve to traumatize students.
Lewis said she stands by the vote and believes that the intent of the program is something that many have failed to understand.
“I think we took into consideration those comments that were made and others that we heard on the outside,” she said. “This is a program that’s more about relations and deescalating.”
Holler has spent her career working with area nonprofits, serving as the executive director of the Albany Barn, Inc. beginning in 2013 before helping launch the Electric City Barn in 2018. Running for the Board of Education is something she has considered for years, but pushed off due to family and career obligations.
But with her two children now older, Holler is hoping to bring her knowledge from the nonprofit sector to help address the racial disparities between students and teachers, and help the district form relationships to bolster its community schools initiative.
“There are pillars of our existing district strategic plan where we’re not meeting objectives,” she said. “I’d like to take part in reviewing job plans looking at the data that we have around what we’ve done so far, and help guide that forward, as well as to advocate for changes where changes need to be made to address things that are specific to kind of live post COVID.”
Holler added she would like to improve communication between the district and parents, noting the two dozen languages are spoken in the district. She added that she is committed to addressing learning loss brought on by the pandemic and would work to bolster extracurricular activities for students.
Asked about the CEO program, Holler said she would have abstained from the vote approving the program because she doesn’t believe enough information has been collected to warrant an expansion. She added that she is not against the program or the district teaching students about police, but believes there are other opportunities that can be explored when it comes to addressing safety in schools.
The CEO program, she said, is not a binary issue and includes nuances that haven’t been discussed, including how the officers will operate in each school and what would happen if police were to use force, conversations that she would like to pursue if elected.
“There’s a lot of complexity there, and I think the issue — there are people who are trying to oversimplify it and use it as a polarizing point,” she said. “What I really think is that we need to have more productive conversations around what safety means to people, and what the different opportunities are to create safe school environments.”
Willey-Aulet has been working with Schenectady school children for years through her foundation, The Emily Willey Foundation, a youth-outreach program.
A lifelong Schenectady resident, Willey-Aulet said she entered the race to ensure students have a voice and ensure their needs and concerns are being addressed.
“In order to make a better district for all of us where everybody feels like they are included, and everybody feels like they belong, we need to have those voices at the table,” she said.
Willey-Aulet said she would like to see additional training for staff district wide in order to ensure that students’ issues and traumas and not being treated in “the same cookie-cutter way.”
She said it’s vital that the district continue anti-racism and bias training for all faculty and staff as it continues to implement its diversity, equity and inclusion policy, which she called “monumental.”
Willey-Aulet said she supports the district’s community school model and must continue to be supportive of staff while developing ways to bolster diversity among teachers.
She said she agrees with most aspects of the district’s proposed $239 million spending plan, but would like to see additional funding for social workers and psychologists.
The decision to expand the community engagement officer program, Willey-Aulet said, should have been left up to a referendum considering the magnitude of the topic and the division that it created.
There are several concerns surrounding the program that still need to be addressed, including ensuring that families and children feel comfortable with each officer selected under the program, and that officers are responding to the needs of families, Willey-Aulet said.
She said the program is about collaboration and is committed to ensuring everyone’s concerns about the program are addressed moving forward.
“I just think it’s about collaboration and making common ground, and that’s what I want to work with the school board on and the community,” she said. “It’s not a black and white issue, there’s a lot of gray matter and in the gray matter is where we can all find peace.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.