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Candidates for Scarsdale School Board Discuss Transparency, Listening and Communication at LWVS Forum

Forum2What’s your view of the role of the Board of Education in setting and implementing district policy? How much oversight should they exercise and should individual board members be permitted to speak their minds? Do you want to maintain the status quo or are you itching for a change in school board leadership?

Choosing the most qualified and passionate candidates to serve in local government is one of the most powerful tools citizens can use to see changes implemented in their community. In the upcoming election for the school board and budget on May 18, 2021, the Scarsdale community will choose between four candidates to fill two open positions on the Scarsdale School Board of Education (BOE). The candidates running are Jim Dugan, Irin Israel, Jessica Resnick-Ault, and incumbent School Board Vice President Alison Tepper Singer. Resnick-Ault and Dugan were endorsed by the non-partisan Scarsdale School Board Nominating Committee (SBNC). Many other community members, as well as past and current BOE members, have spoken out in support of Singer, whose impressive credentials and volunteer experience won her a seat in her last election.

On Sunday, May 2, the Scarsdale League of Women Voters hosted a Candidate Forum so that voters could hear directly from each candidate. Candidates had one minute and 30 seconds to respond to each question posed by moderator Sheila Miller Berson. You can view the entire forum HERE.

Beginning with opening statements, Resnick-Ault introduced herself as a journalist, union leader, parent, and volunteer. Dugan introduced himself as a lawyer and advocate, the founder of the Coalition for Scarsdale Schools, a volunteer with the Citizen’s Nominating Committee, and the President of the Fox Meadow Overhill Association. In his opening statement, Israel focused on the current Board’s lack of transparency and his qualifications to change Board culture. Finally, Singer highlighted how her experience as BOE Vice President, as a community volunteer, and as an advocate for children with special needs qualify her for reelection.

Ms. Berson began by asking each candidate what they thought Scarsdale’s most pressing issues are. Dugan answered that recovering from COVID and gaining back parent and community trust are the most critical concerns. Israel added that the Board must do more for the youngest and most vulnerable learners and mentioned that while the Board’s new Diversity and Equity Initiative (DEI) is a great step forward, he wants to see a specific action plan put in place. He also highlighted the need to improve Board culture and work on transparency, oversight, and communication. Singer wants to prioritize student and faculty mental health and wellness, distill the positives from the COVID crisis that the district should keep, and refocus on critical board work that was put on the back burner during the pandemic. Resnick-Ault stated that as a reporter, she has spent two decades covering major disasters and her focus would be on conducting a postmortem. She wants to ask questions and learn what Scarsdale did well and poorly during the pandemic. Resnick-Ault also spoke about implementing the DEI policy and unifying the Board and the Administration.

Next, the moderator asked Singer and Dugan how they would allocate a hypothetical $5 million windfall for the school district. Singer advocated for increasing mental health and wellness resources and managing the school’s unassigned fund balance. Because of unanticipated COVID expenditures, the unassigned balance is currently at 3% instead of the ideal 4%, and Singer would use these funds to replenish the fund balance so that the district can access the market with an improved credit rating. Dugan said that he would invest this money to foster educational excellence and focus on our youngest children.

When Dugan was asked what methods he would implement to ensure that he heard from, and engaged with, a wide swath of the community, he answered with a call to reevaluate the Board’s “Speak With One Voice” policy. He stated that the Board needs to do a better job listening to the community and he doesn’t want to refer the community to outside sources or make them wait to speak directly with the Board. Answering the same question, Israel stressed that the current Board does not address concerns from community engagement. While the BOE replies to every email, he claims that these responses are vague and formulaic. Additionally, he complained about the Board’s vote to curtail public comment and called out Singer as the member who put forward this motion and wanted even more stringent reductions to public comment. Singer later responded by claiming that the time restriction was implemented so that the Board would have time to hear from more community members during meetings.

Another question, directed to Singer and Resnick-Ault, asked how the candidates would meaningfully implement the BOE’s new DEI policy. Singer stated that the goal of the policy is “to build and protect an educational ecosystem where all students feel welcomed and accepted… it’s not about censoring any points of view.” She went on to say that it’s about celebrating differences and not tolerating bigotry or hate of any kind. Singer is confident that the school faculty will lead these important conversations. Resnick-Ault said that she has the experience to implement the policy at a curricular and hiring level. She spoke of her hiring practices as a reporter where she looked outside of traditional journalism schools. Resnick-Ault declared that “it wasn’t surprising that we found great candidates in overlooked places… if you want a diverse pool of candidates you need to actively search for it.” She went on to voice her concern that Edgewood School, which has almost 50% Asian students, does not have a single Asian classroom teacher.

Later, the moderator asked candidates what they thought the BOE’s role is in a hypothetical situation where a group of parents is lobbying for a policy change to allow middle schoolers to leave the campus for lunch. Israel answered that communication and safety are the most important things. He asserted that his primary concern is to make sure the parents’ request is “legitimately and openly discussed so they understand the reasoning in the final decision.” Resnick-Ault took a slightly different approach and stated that while the Board represents parents, they must listen to the educators and the safety experts. She highlighted the need to distinguish between what is in the best interest of education and the community versus what a niche group of parents is asking for. The Board must ask the right questions and determine how many people would be impacted by the policy change and evaluate what the negative ramifications might be.

During closing statements, Singer reiterated the idea that BOE members must come in with an “open mind and not an agenda… Board members need to be trusted to carefully and objectively weigh all opinions and facts.” Israel highlighted that he has spoken up throughout the pandemic and then questioned if Singer did enough during her term to improve things for vulnerable children. Dugan emphasized that, along with Resnick-Ault, he was endorsed by the SBNC and that he has spent his life as an advocate and is ready to bring his skills and passion to the Board. Resnick-Ault underscored the need to be prepared for the changing needs of students this upcoming school year and that her credentials as a journalist have prepared her to ask the necessary questions.

Each candidate was fully prepared for the forum and spoke passionately about the issues. Israel was the most outspoken in terms of criticizing the current Board and reiterated that he would be an advocate for parents. Singer did an effective job of explaining the Board’s rationale for certain decisions, and she showcased herself to be a dedicated public servant and advocate of students with special needs. Dugan stressed that his skills as an attorney and volunteer have prepared him to be a Board member who listens to the needs of the community and responds directly. Finally, Resnick-Ault positioned herself as a journalist and investigator who will root out issues and come to common-sense solutions. Each candidate presented his or her strengths during the forum, and it will be up to the Scarsdale Voters on May 18th to select two candidates to serve on the School Board.

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