When Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson was a teacher in Schenectady schools earlier in her career, she lived in an apartment in the city. But when she wanted to settle down in a home of her own, she moved to Pattersonville in rural Schenectady County.
She thought it would be quieter and more remote.
After six years in Pattersonville, however, Wilkinson couldn’t help but feel she would be happier living somewhere else. She found a 1909 home a few blocks from the high school and, a few years before being named high school principal, moved back to the city — this time as a homeowner.
“I like being part of the community; I like being close to everything; I like the farmer’s market on Sunday,” Wilkinson said. “I think as a community, not only the district, but as a community, you want to bring professionals into the community — that is a collaborative goal.”
But many of Wilkinson’s colleagues at the top levels of the district have opted to live elsewhere.
Just six of the district’s 90 administrators live within the boundaries of the Schenectady City School District, according to a district report earlier this year that spells out the percent of different employee categories that live in the district.
Of the over 1,000 teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists and special education workers that serve the district, 101 live in the district.
In total, less than 10 percent of Schenectady school teachers and administrators live in the district. Nine percent of faculty and seven percent of administrators and middle managers make their homes in the school district that helps pay their rent or mortgage.
“That is shockingly low,” said Damonni Farley, a lifelong Schenectady resident who works as a community engagement coordinator in the district.
But teachers and administrators have as many reasons for living outside the district as there are district employees — some have set roots down before starting a job with the district, some have spouses who work in other school districts or towns, some moved back to where they grew up, some do prefer rural life.
“It’s a very personal decision to choose where to live,” said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers. “That question could be answered in as many different ways as people you ask.”
‘Big hairy audacious goal’
Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, the district’s top administrator, said he keeps a folder in his office labeled BHAG – for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Inside of the folder, he keeps notes for a long-term plan to turn more Schenectady students into Schenectady teachers. To accomplish that goal, Spring said, the community would need to raise millions of dollars to set up an endowment that could help pay college tuition for Schenectady students who committed to returning to teach in the city.
“It’s a longterm thing, and it’s bold,” said Spring, who lives in the district with his family. His kids go to district schools.
But in the short term, Spring is working with city officials to help promote Schenectady home ownership to new teachers through Mayor Gary McCarthy’s H.O.M.E.S. program, which aims to boost the number of owner-occupied homes in the city. The district hopes to develop a simple packet of information that would explain to teachers interested in living in Schenectady how to finance an affordable duplex and possibly rent part of it for a second income.
“We think that is a really good way for a teacher to basically live rent-free and pay down student loans in an accelerated fashion,” Spring said.
The district has also ramped up its effort to develop a more diverse work force — finding teachers who “look like” the students in the district — by creating a new position for a full-time recruitment specialist. A job fair held at Paige School in the spring drew well over 200 job seekers; the district held the fair locally in hopes of drawing more applicants from in and around Schenectady.
Cathy Lewis, Schenectady school board president, said the district appreciates the importance of attracting teachers to live in the district and said the city has become a more desirable place to live in recent years. But she doesn’t favor a residency requirement for staff and doesn’t think the district’s budget can support incentives to teachers who choose to live in the city.
While there is scant research into the impact that teacher residency has on education outcomes, Catherine Snyder, director of the education masters program at Clarkson University Capital Region Campus, said living in the district they work in could help young teachers connect to their students.
“I think that teachers who live in the district, particularly those new to the field, gain a better appreciation for the community and environment their students live in if they live there and have more access to what the community offers,” Snyder said.
But she also recognized that teachers have countless factors that drive their decisions about where to live, noting that when she was a public school teacher she and her husband worked in separate school districts and they couldn’t very well live in both. Some teachers may be interested in more privacy or consider home availability and affordability as they choose where to live, she said.
And while a teacher can succeed without living in the school district they work, the sum of those individual decisions has a very real impact, Spring said.
“It’s not critical for the success of an individual teacher, but it is really important for the success of a system,” Spring said of teacher and administrator residency. “The fact that people see me in the grocery store and at community events builds trust and familiarity, and the more staff they see in those places the greater familiarity with staff will be.”
In defense of teachers
No matter where a Schenectady teacher lives, they teach in a Schenectady classroom and work with Schenectady students. They understand the challenges of the community, because they work with kids every day, Benaquisto argued.
“We know what our kids are dealing with, we know what our families are dealing with,” said Benaquisto, the teachers union president. “I’ve taught 28 years in this district, and I know the community.
Like Wilkinson, Benaquisto lived in the city earlier in her career; but unlike Wilkinson, she loves life in a rural area, where she lives with her horses — a hard thing to do in the city, she said.
Benaquisto said it was not necessary for more teachers to live in the district in order to improve the city’s schools, pointing out that many people can live in the city and be disconnected from its challenges — but not teachers.
“You can live right next door to someone and not know what they are going through,” Benaquisto said. “You can live in the city and be very far removed from some of the struggles that some in our community live with.”
Wilkinson, the high school principal, didn’t want her passion and commitment to living in Schenectady to be interpreted as a judgment of her colleagues who have chose to lives other places.
“I don’t want to characterize that, ‘If you don’t live here it doesn’t mean you don’t care about our kids or our community,’ ” Wilkinson said. “They are still here after school, here at night; there are other ways you can be part of the community than living in it.”
(Some neighboring districts don’t calculate the percentage of their employees that live in the district. Spokesmen for Niskayuna and Scotia-Glenville, for example, both said they don’t track similar statistics.)
While teachers don’t need to live in the district to attend community events or be seen around town, Spring said, they need to be “more intentional and planful” about engaging in the community beyond just the schools.
Farley, the community engagement coordinator, also emphasized that teachers who do not live in Schenectady can still engage in the community, attending community events and being seen around town. But for residents those experiences are “more organic.”
“It’s not just about living there; because you live there doesn’t mean you are engaged,” Farley said.
Prior to working in the district, Farley would have thought that would be less likely for a teacher to do without living in the city, he said.
Not a new discussion
In 2011, with interim Superintendent John Yagielski heading up an effort to reposition the district financially, academically and in the eyes of the community, the board considered policy changes to require or incentivize staff residency within the district. But in the end, the board opted for a recruitment policy that left out any mention of residency — and teacher residency rates continued to drop.
At the time, then-board member Andrew Chestnut, who favored doing more to promote residency, told the Daily Gazette he expected the percentage of teachers living in the district to continue to slide if district officials weren’t proactive about encouraging or giving preference to applicants with city residency. Five years later, his prediction has been borne out.
“I think that’s pathetic,” Chestnut said last week of the most recent percentage of teachers with residency. “Does it need to be 100 percent of teachers living [in Schenectady]? No, but this is ridiculous.”
Chestnut also argued that the low percentage of teacher residency means that the pay from good middle class jobs — funded by Schenectady tax dollars — is going to support economies in other cities and towns.
“For the city to function properly, it needs a certain number of thousands of decent jobs that pay decent salaries and have decent healthcare and benefits, so people can raise their families,” he said. “To the extent they are giving those jobs to people who don’t live in the city, they are supporting another city.”
Around the same time the board revised the recruitment policy in 2011, district officials also effectively undid one district residency requirement that did exist. Under district policy — which is still on the books — the members of the “superintendent’s cabinet” are required to live in the district. But in 2011, Yagielski and the board eliminated a pair of assistant superintendent positions and distributed administrative duties across a wider variety of department director positions, which do not carry the same residency requirement.
In 2000, just over 20 percent of the district’s teachers lived in the city, according a Daily Gazette article. By the 2012-2013 school year, 15 percent of teachers and 9 percent of administrators lived in the districts. The share of both teachers and administrators that make their home in Schenectady has since dropped below 10 percent, according to the February report.
In the past few years, the district has seen significant increases in the percentage of employees in positions that require lesser levels of education and certification than teaching who live in the district. In the 2012-2013 school year, 66 percent of paraprofessionals and lunch aides lived in Schenectady; this year, 86 percent of those workers live in the district. In fact, even though the district employs 37 fewer paras and lunch aides than it did three years ago, 54 more of them reside in the district than in 2013.
While 56 percent of the maintenance and operations staff lived in the district in 2013, today nearly 70 percent do. The share of secretarial staff that live in the district has remained consistent over the past few years.
Farley said it is no small deal that so much of the district support staff lives in Schenectady.
“I want to be intentional about not minimizing the impact of paras and support staff; they are often dealing with very serious issues,” Farley said. “They are front-line people, the people who respond to crisis and are responsible for a lot of parent contact.”
Jamaica Miles, a lifelong Schenectady resident and education activist, said she hopes the district clearly communicates the steps it is taking to improve diversity in the district and strengthen the ties of district staff to the community. Her daughter, entering her senior year at New York University, plans to return to Schenectady to teach in the schools where she grew up. To her, living in Schenectady provides undeniable benefits for people educating the city’s children.
“Is it impossible to understand and empathize with students without living next door? No,” Miles said. “But is it a benefit to be in the community with our students to better serve them? Absolutely.”