Andy Chestnut, elected to the Schenectady school board in May, took time from his first meeting to remind people about an issue important to him: having staff and teachers who live in the city.
“I was fixated on residency, and I still am,” Chestnut said, referring to his previous time serving on the school board five years ago. “When we talk about passionate people, the more our team lives in Schenectady, the more they will represent the diversity of Schenectady – that will happen automatically.”
Chestnut raised the issue of trying to boost teacher and staff residency within district boundaries during a discussion about a new strategic plan the board adopted last Wednesday night. The new strategic plan includes focuses on attracting and retaining “passionate people” to work in the district as well as strengthening partnerships in the community. The plan not only calls for measuring the percent of staff hired and promoted from underrepresented demographic groups, but also looks to improve teacher attendance.
However, Chestnut said there was “no mention” of staff residency in the plan or targets for increasing the share of the staff that lives in Schenectady. He said greater staff residency within Schenectady would help improve relationships between teachers, students and families as they run into each other out of school and share in the well-being of the community. He also argued the district and city would benefit from how district staff spent their non-working time if more of them lived in Schenectady.
“If somehow 100 percent of our teachers lived in Schenectady, kids would run into them at the grocery store, at church... those connections would happen,” Chestnut said. “It's not like there aren't opportunities for people to live here.”
For the 2018-2019 school year, around one-third of the district's overall workforce lived in Schenectady, according to its annual residency report. Less than 20 percent of both teachers and administrators, however, were residents of the city. Twelve of the district's 71 administrators, principals and department directors, lived in the city; 169 of the district's 991 teachers were reported as living in Schenectady.
A much larger share of the district's secretarial, nursing, paraprofessional, monitoring, operations and maintenance staff reside in Schenectady. At least half of all secretaries and nurses, and paras and monitors lived in the city, according to the report.
Board member Bernice Rivera said she also saw value in having more of the district's staff live within the city, arguing it would make staff “more connected” to the broader community. She suggested, “as a compromise,” setting a percentage share of district staff who should be residents of the district.
“I think there is a lot of evidence too that if educators live in the district they are more connected and able to make those authentic relationships with students and have buy in with what's happening in Schenectady and want to see Schenectady thrive,” Rivera said.
Chestnut's comments spurred a brief policy discussion among board members. Board member Ann Reilly pointed out that the board last year replaced a policy that required certain district officials live within the district – a policy that had effectively been ignored for years – with a policy that “directs the superintendent to cultivate relationships with community agencies” to promote staff to live in the city.
While the old policy had required the superintendent and other high-level administrators to live in the district, many of the people who held the positions covered by the policy had not done so. The new policy language, which the board adopted in March 2018, recognizes that when employees live in the district, “there is a greater sense of commitment... and better relationships between staff and the families they serve.” Yet, the policy does not include any requirement that staff live in the district.
After Wednesday's meeting, Spring said he was trying to work with city officials to find ways to help new teachers understand the feasibility of owning a home in Schenectady and possibly owning a two-family home that could also serve as a rental property. However, the specifics of that effort won't be in place for new staff members starting in September.
During the meeting, he told the school board it would have the chance to decide what specific data measures it wants to collect in an effort to track progress under the strategic plan.
“It could be a place where the board says we think this is an indicator of whether we have passionate people,” Spring said of using staff residency as a measure under the strategic plan.