Sara Foss

Change comes to the Schenectady school board

Don’t listen to me. Listen to the voters. If voters were happy with how the Schenectady city schools are being run, incumbent school board member Andy Chestnut would have been re-elected to the school board Tuesday, perhaps by a wide margin. The most prominent candidate for change, activist Jamaica Miles, would have been soundly defeated. And those interviewed outside of polling places would have expressed satisfaction with the status quo. “We love what the school board’s doing,” these voters might have said. “Here’s to more of the same!” But this isn’t what happened, is it? 

Voters rejected Chestnut, and he didn’t just lose – he was flatly rejected, finishing last among five candidates vying for two open seats on the school board. The big winners were Miles and Erica Brockmyer, candidates who spoke passionately about the need to change how the district operates, with an emphasis on improved community engagement and better communication with parents, students and staff. Those interviewed outside polling places seemed all for it, expressing a desire for “new blood” and stability at the superintendent position.

“It’s a dysfunctional board,” one voter told The Daily Gazette. “Unfortunately, we only get to replace two members.” Another voter told me that he doesn’t always agree with Miles, who heads the activist group All of Us and has been a leading local voice against police brutality, but that this didn’t stop him from voting for her. “She’ll hold the board’s feet to the fire,” he said. Comments like this, combined with the vote totals, suggest the school board should take Tuesday’s election results as a warning. 

For too long, the Schenectady school board has operated as if it is beyond reproach, making important decisions in secrecy, with minimal public input, and behaving as if it simply isn’t possible to do things another way. If the board’s track record was one of success, its opacity and refusal to engage with the public in a more meaningful way might not be so bothersome. But it’s not. 

In recent years, Schenectady residents have been treated to an embarrassing series of scandals and missteps, such as the departure of former superintendent Larry Spring in a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, the failed search to find his successor and the damning BOCES report that described an “ongoing culture of mistrust of culture and fear” among district employees. Voters have noticed these things, and it’s why they arrived at the polls in a testy mood, with the goal of shaking things up.  Board members can resist the trends that swept Miles and Brockmyer into office, or they can listen to what voters are telling them, and adapt. 

I’d recommend adapting. 

Because change is coming to the school board, whether members like it or not.

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