Schenectady City School District voters next month will choose from six candidates to fill three school board seats –- a flood of options for a district that in recent years fielded fewer candidates than open positions.
The candidates include a pair of incumbents, parents looking to engage in district policy, a former teacher turned teacher trainer and a Proctors education program coordinator inspired to public service after a disappointing outcome in the November election.
At least one new member will join the board after the May 16 election as board member Cheryl Nechamen is not pursuing another term. But the shift could be more dramatic if all three open seats turn over to new members.
The board election comes as the district also asks voters to support a budget that makes the most substantial investment in new programs since before the Great Recession and cuts the district’s tax levy -– the total amount collected in local taxes -– by around 2 percent.
Just three years ago, board member Dharam Hitlall mounted a successful write-in campaign after the district failed to attract enough candidates to fill all of the open seats. This time around, his name will be on the ballot as he runs for re-election. Hitlall said he decided to run for another term and collected all of the required 100 signatures of support Wednesday, the deadline for filing for the election.
Hitlall, a mortgage broker who has a preschool-age kid, said he would continue to advocate for increased state funding and “fight for equal education for all kids.”
Board member Tanya Hull is also seeking another term. As a board member, Hull has championed programs like Girls Day Out and emphasized the importance of parent engagement and diversity. She said she wants the district to expand to full-day pre-kindergarten at all of its schools and to expand services provided to parents.
The potential newcomers include former board candidate Bernice Rivera. Rivera worked for around 10 years as a teacher at Mont Pleasant Middle School before joining New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union, where she now works on teaching training and develops training seminars.
Rivera has lived in the area for around 15 years and had two daughters graduate from Schenectady High School and go on to graduate from college. Rivera said she brings a deep understanding of education and teaching. In her NYSUT job, she has traveled the state and has seen a wide array of different classroom approaches that she says she could introduce as a school board member.
“My passion has always been education,” Rivera said after Wednesday’s school board meeting. “Visiting schools across the state has given me a big picture of the strengths and challenges of what students and communities are facing.”
Two other district parents are also looking to join the board: Kanema Haynes, who has a daughter at the high school, a son at Mont Pleasant and a younger son who attends a charter school in Albany, and Janelle Hooks, who has two kids in the high school and a third at Mont Pleasant.
Haynes has criticized the district for its disciplinary practices, arguing district officials have not done enough to lessen its use of out-of-school suspensions and lower racial disparities in suspensions, while increasing the emphasis on “restorative” practices that use peer-mediation and other strategies to handle disciplinary problems. (Haynes’ children have at times been suspended from school, she has said.)
Haynes also attended Schenectady schools, graduating from the high school in 1999. She said as a graduate and parent she has a “unique perspective to offer as a school board member.” She also called for a “more detailed analysis and transparent process” while developing the district budget.
“I do believe there is room for improvement in the student disciplinary process, and I want to be part of reviewing that process and proposing changes,” she said.
Hooks was born and raised in Schenectady, works as a senior clerk at Schenectady County Community College and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She said she wants to get engaged in the district and help it improve and felt the best way to do that would be to join the school board. She said she appreciates the broad offerings available at the high school but feels the middle school is understaffed.
“I crave knowledge and I just want to learn,” she said. “And if I can help along the way, hey, that’s great.”
Katherine Stephens, the final candidate, works as education program manager at Proctors Theatre, where she has helped coordinate programs in Schenectady schools and with the schools at the main theater.
Stephens said she was inspired to engage more directly in public service after what she viewed as a disappointing outcome in last year’s presidential election. With a background in theater in the arts, she emphasized the importance of maintaining arts programs and said she would like to see the district continue to develop more connection to the community at large.
“What I would like to do is take my background in arts and problem-solving and build other bridges in the community,” Stephens said. “Part of the reason I got into theater … was to brings arts to students in different ways and to help them learn about themselves and their communities through the arts.”