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Candidate for School Board Irin Israel Calls for Transparency and Communication

Iri IsraelIrin Israel is running for Scarsdale School Board as an independent candidate advocating for more transparency and communication. See his responses below to questions posed by Scarsdale10583 and remember to cast your vote for the two open board seats on Tuesday May 18 from 7 am to 9 pm at the Scarsdale Congregational Church at 1 Heathcote Road, Scarsdale.

Tell us about yourself and your family. When and why did you move to Scarsdale? And why do you enjoy living here?

I grew up in Staten Island, and my wife grew up in New Jersey. Like many people, we met when we were both living in the city. I’d gone to public school and I wanted that same feeling of all the area children going to the same schools, seeing each other on the baseball fields, bumping into friends at the local pizza place – that community feeling. Scarsdale has strong schools, a nice community and a welcome feeling so we decided that it was where we wanted to raise our family.

We moved into Quaker Ridge with our black Labrador almost 13 years ago, a few weeks before our daughter was born. Although we knew almost no one in Scarsdale, we were fortunate to meet a core group of close friends quickly who are still among our closest friends. Our daughter is now in 7th grade Choice House and our son in 5th grade QRS.

Describe any work you have done as a member of a volunteer board or committee. What did you learn from these experiences?

This year, I volunteered hundreds of hours toward our school COVID and reopening policies. I acquired and disseminated the most current information through local and national networks for schools through the pandemic. I spoke with legislators, NYS health officials, superintendents and facility heads at dozens of schools, and parents in our area and around the country. I became a resource for communities around Westchester, including for our Board - who personally asked me for information and asked me questions. I spoke at most of our meetings this year and created presentations. I was even asked to speak on a national forum and I’m going to be interviewed for a book. It was an incredible experience and I’m thankful for the amazing people I’ve met. While this wasn’t for a specific organization, not all volunteer work necessarily is.

When I was in the film industry, I volunteered my time, work and advice to independent and student films on numerous occasions. At the House of Sports, which I created/owned/managed, I also volunteered my time and resources to charity and community events. I’ve been fortunate to spend much of my career in teamwork settings working toward a goal of a final product that others will enjoy, such as film production and live events, and my volunteer work is no different.

How did your family fare with remote learning? What were the challenges and benefits – if any? Why are you running for School Board this year?

Remote learning did not go well in my family, especially for my 5th grade son. The lack of social outlet led to a drastic change in his personality. I saw friends having similar experiences with their children, from kindergarteners struggling to learn and socialize on zoom to high schoolers dealing with depression. Obviously, this was not the fault of the school district, but when the information on COVID became clearer and it was apparent that there were safe options that the district wasn’t openly exploring, I began to ask questions. When the questions were not answered, I began to research on my own. This led me to becoming incredibly proactive in our community.

During this crisis, the lack of transparency and communication from our Administration and Board exacerbated the issues and caused division in our community. I strove to ensure that every safe, compliant option to help our children and our schools was openly explored. I believe that going forward, we need a complete change of Board culture. Board culture affects every decision from textbook choices to diversity to the next unexpected issue round the corner. I would like to continue addressing district concerns in this same manner: transparently and looking for solutions, not obstacles. Our current culture of exclusion needs to be changed to one of openness, contribution and participation.

You submitted schematics to the district that showed that students could fit into the school buildings at a distance of six feet apart, and later learned through a FOIL request, that the administration had similar plans from the district architects. Why do you think the administration concealed the report that showed that students could fit in to the schools at a distance of six feet apart?

Yes, that was very disheartening. On November 9th, I put forward plans to the Administration, Board and community that clearly showed that all current elementary children could fit full-time with six-foot distancing and according to all safety regulations. I’d hoped this would be a jumping off point for the district to delve into these options. Instead, the Administration and Board neither accepted nor denied the viability of the plans and instead refused to fully address them. Two months later, on January 8th, the Administration had a similar 67-page study completed by their architects that confirmed what I had shown and showed unequivocally that all current elementary children could fit full-time with six-foot distancing and according to all safety regulations with 40 rooms left completely unused. However, this document was buried and not shown to the Board, the Restart Committee or the community until I discovered it through the laws of open government. Grades 3rd-5th were brought back after that, but they could have been full-time safely at any point during the year. It was salt in the wounds of my son’s struggles.

I have no idea why my plans were not legitimately addressed, nor why the Administration’s own document that confirmed my studies was kept private. My fear is that this will occur again during the next big crisis. The Board did not reprimand the Administration for hiding documents that were critical to the following of Board policy, to the Board’s forming of advice, and to the Board’s oversight and review.

If not for the spatial challenges, what do you believe were the real reasons for the delayed return to school?

At one point in January, I’d been told that “maybe” the children could fit spatially, but there were other concerns such as locations for teacher lunches, nursing rooms and other items. I inquired if the Board had looked into solutions for these concerns and if so, what was insurmountable. I was not able to get an answer, but soon after I requested the 67-page study, these issues vanished and were never brought up again, and 3rd through 5th grade could now all fit.

We rarely heard from the teachers during the school closings. In your view, why did they maintain their silence? Should the administration have volunteered more information about any discussions they were having with the union?

The teachers speak through their union and much is confidential. However, as a community, I wish we’d been able to hear more of the concerns of teachers and staff throughout the year. It is with communication and transparency that not only are optimal decisions able to be made, but more buy-in on decisions occurs due to understanding. There also would have been less rifts in community. At times, it felt as if teachers and parents were pitted against each other, but yet when I heard from each “side”, they had many of the same feelings.

Given your experience with the Board of Education this past year, some fear you would be a disrupter rather than a team player. If elected, how would you build consensus?

I can assure you that I would not waste my time or the community’s time serving with the goal of being a “disrupter”. Disagreeing and working together on a team are not mutually exclusive. That’s what being on any team is about. I have spent my life being a part of teams working toward a consensus from film crews to live events to the House of Sports. I’m confident that I can work as a member of the Board. To work together, you have to be an active listener, open-minded, collaborative, and you have to compromise. All of my previous work experience has demanded those skills.

In fact, although I was not on the Board this past year, I have already worked with the Board and Administration often. I’ve had in-person meetings and phone calls with most of the Board. I’ve exchanged dozens of emails. I’ve provided much information and of course my opinion.

What will be your priorities as a member of the Board of Education?

First, not everything is about COVID, but questions remain about what next year will be like. It’s crucial that when the District makes decisions, that only science and data are followed, not politics as was this past year. We need to assess the effects on the children – educationally, socially and emotionally. We need to address mental health. Schools are key in detecting issues, providing services and guiding those in need to external resources.
Second, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative policy was a great step, however, it concerns me that the policy does not state specific plans or metrics. I like that it speaks of a Committee, but I wonder who would serve on it, and their power. It is only through transparency, communication and community input that we will be able to ensure that the DEI initiative accomplishes its goals of the results we are striving for and only those results.

Third, as I mentioned above, Board culture affects everything in this district, every decision, and how every concern is approached. Communication, transparency and oversight need to be addressed. We need to foster a greater sense of inclusion and the value of parental involvement.

Provide your ideas on how community members can help to define district priorities for 2021-22 beforehand rather than reacting after issues arise?

I hate to repeat that it’s communication and transparency, but it is. There are already many avenues for community input, but the input is not addressed. For example, the Board does not explicitly answer questions in emails or those asked during Public Comment at meetings. In fact, the Board voted to limit Public Comment this past fall and has yet to change those time limitations. The Board also refused a volunteer community medical advisory committee and then eliminated medical officer positions from the bylaws, during a pandemic. The options for input are there, but the input is rejected. Board culture needs to change for the community to be able to respond contemporaneously.

Anything else you want to add is welcome.

I have worked on planning, logistics, budgeting, operations, construction, marketing, and recruitment as well as dealing with local governments, contractors, vendors and customers in my various roles. My previous roles included creator, developer, and owner of the House of Sports as well as planning and managing numerous films and live events, such as Historic Hudson Valley’s Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze and Horseman’s Hollow. At the House of Sports, I personally created and managed the preschool “learn to play” program, which at its peak had several hundred children participating each week in dozens of classes, and I was responsible for the physical facility itself. My Masters in Industrial/Organizational Psychology focused on motivation, learning and leadership. And those who know me, know that I am extremely active in my children’s lives and the community. As a stay-at-home dad, I’ve had the opportunity to be present often in my children’s lives, schools and community from Girl Scouts to Little League coach to Class Parent.

I have the passion and as a stay-at-home dad, I have the time to channel everything I have into representing our community. I urge you to vote for who you believe will best serve your children, your community and your school district. We need change. Thank you.

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