SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady City School District will hire dozens of new teachers and mental health professionals after voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a proposed $239 million spending plan, and elected a pair of candidates that have voiced strong support for expanding the presence of police in schools.
Under the approved budget, which passed 1,164 to 326, taxes will remain flat but district spending will increase by more than $20 million, or 9.26%, thanks to a $17 million infusion in state aid. The district will also use $4.4 million in repair reserves for facility upgrades and use $3.8 million in coronavirus-relief funding to cover the cost of dozens of new positions.
Board president Catherine Lewis was elected to a fifth three-year term with 925 votes, while Vivian Parsons, who based the crux of her campaign on student safety, including support for police presence in schools, received 748 votes.
Kristen Holler and Emily Willey-Aulet, who ran on the same ticket, received 614 and 558 votes, respectively.
“I’m hopeful that we can now move forward with all of our new initiatives and work it all out together,” Lewis said.
Voters also approved a proposition to allow the district to create a $5 million capital reserve fund using unspent funds over the next five years to help cover the costs of future capital projects in a 1,216 to 269 vote.
Tuesday’s vote caps off a weekslong, fiercely political election cycle that centered around the Board of Education’s controversial 4-3 vote in March to expand a community engagement officer program that will place six police officers in city schools over the next three years.
The program has drawn fierce criticism from dozens of community members, including district parents and students, who have argued at public forums that police have no place in schools and their presence would only traumatize students and exacerbate the school to prison pipeline.
The program was also scrutinized by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which wrote to the school board in opposition of the program and requested the City Council table a proposal to expand the program earlier this month.
But Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. and police Chief Eric Clifford have said the program is centered around forming relationships between police and students and that officers would not discipline students, but could intervene whenever safety concerns arise on campus and investigate any crimes that occur.
The topic was also on the mind of voters.
Jessica Hunter, 32, said she voted in favor of the budget, but was concerned about expanding the presence of police in schools, calling the proposal “nuts.” A 2007 graduate of the district, Hunter said she was once stopped by polices while walking the hallways and the experience still resonates with her today.
“We have children, not hardened criminal adults in the school,” she said. “The way our police force has acted hasn’t always had the best interest of our citizens at heart. I’ve lived here my whole life. I know the history of the police department. It’s not something I want school kids around.”
But 75-year-old Ken Carpenter said he didn’t understand why people would object to having police in schools. He said he voted for Lewis due to her past experience, and believes the district has been heading in a positive direction in recent years.
“I think the board’s been doing a good job overall, and she (Lewis) wanted to continue to lead and I think she’s a good leader who deserves that support,” he said.
Parsons, who ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket during last year’s City Council race, said she believes it was her support for the program that resonated with voters.
“Everyone I spoke to in the community pretty much expressed the same sentiment, that they were displeased with the way some things were going, and I think the tipping point for a lot of people I spoke with was the massive contentions over the community engagement officer program,” she said. “Many people I spoke with said they were displeased with that.”
The Schenectady GOP Committee, which typically does not back candidates for school board, endorsed Lewis — who voted in favor of the community engagement officer program — and Parsons over their support for the community engagement officer program, and sought to paint Holler and Willey-Aulet as a threat to students’ safety and criticized board member Jamaica Miles’ endorsement of the pair online.
Miles, a community activist elected to the board last year, has faced increased criticism in recent weeks after school board vice president Bernice Rivera accused her of helping stage a student walkout and using students to promote her political agenda.
Miles has denied planning the protest but said she did provide advice after students reached out to her seeking assistance on how to safely hold the protest.
Matt Nelligan, chairman of the city’s GOP Committee, said the Tuesday’s results were “the first step toward saving our city.”
Holler, meanwhile, said she was thankful for the support her campaign received, but she was disheartened by how politicized the race became.
“I think that unfortunately people have anxieties about things going on and things that are changing and unfortunately some people want to play into those anxieties and what better place to do it than where it concerns our children. It’s the thing that most people are concerned about,” she said. “It’s really disheartening, and I hope this board can come together and work to help alleviate some of those fears instilled in people.”
Willey-Aulet did not return a phone call seeking comment, but in a message posted to her campaign’s Facebook page, said she is committed to ensuring all students have a voice.
“While I can say that I’m unhappy with the results of the election, these are the results, and I will continue to work with our children and families, ensuring every single one of their voices, are heard,” the message reads.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.