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School Board Candidates Share Perspectives at LWVS Forum

boardzoom2(Top) Leah Dembitzer, Bob Klein, Sheila Miller Bernson, (Bottom) Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez, Amber YusufOn Sunday night May 31 the three candidates for Scarsdale School Board met for Scarsdale’s first candidates’ forum held on Zoom, as Scarsdale’s first school board and budget vote by mail was in process in Scarsdale. The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale who reported that 150 viewers logged on to watch the live event. The event was recorded and can be viewed here.

The three candidates, Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez, Bob Klein and Amber Yusuf are vying for two seats on the school board. Klein and Yusuf were nominated by the School Board Nominating Committee, a non-partisan group of 30 elected nominators who seek out, evaluate and vet candidates. Kirkendall-Rodriguez is running as an independent candidate. The two candidates with the most votes will win the seats of current Board of Education members Chris Morin and Scott Silberfein who will complete six years of service on the Board in June.

After an introduction from League President Leah Dembitzer, the candidates presented their qualifications and answered nine questions posed but the League and audience. In a very congenial event, the candidates appeared to agree on far more than they disagreed. They all support the proposed 2020-21 school budget that is also on the ballot, and all agreed that the current school board did a good job pivoting this spring, when the economic challenges posed by the COVID crisis caused them to revise and reduce the proposed 2020-21 budget.

In opening statements the three showcased their qualifications for the job. Kirkendall-Rodriguez stressed her financial acumen and academic resume, Yusuf highlighted her leadership qualifications and experience as a volunteer in the schools and Klein, a semi-retired architect discussed his ability to analyze and weigh information, and act in a fiscally prudent manner.

Each candidate was given the opportunity to respond to nine questions posed by the League and the public in rotating order. All three candidates demonstrated awareness of the current issues before the Board of Education.

The candidates were asked how they would approach a situation that may soon be faced by the actual board of education. The moderator posed the following scenario, “A sharply divided board and community is considering a bond to build cafeterias at Fox Meadow and Edgewood, to install air conditioning at the schools, and to complete the renovation work on the auditorium,” and asked, “How should the board move forward?”

Calling on his professional experience, Klein said “as an architect that question is clearly within my comfort zone. He said that the board, “needs good consultants to get accurate numbers.” He said he would, “Define the problem, gather data and make a decision… and have a transparent process and gain consensus.” Once they had the relevant facts, he said the board should “weigh priorities and make a decision.”

Kirkendall-Rodriguez related this question to the decision to the one about renovating or building a school at Greenacres and said, “Let’s set up the metrics. Let’s hold a meeting at Village Hall to get all the people in the room…. I don’t think we should be afraid of disagreement…. diversity makes us stronger.” She cautioned, “I would be very careful with consultants. There has to be a framework for vetting consultants to make sure they deliver in a timely and cost-efficient manner.”

Yusuf took another approach. She said, “Why is the board divided? Are they divided on the prioritization of the projects? … Where do the differences lie?” “I would like to get feedback from the stakeholders in the community … We need to have inclusive discussions… and hopefully come to an agreement on what should be the priorities for a bond.”

To a question about improving collaboration between the school and the village boards Yusuf cited recent collaboration between the two boards on the installation of lights at Butler Field. She said, “The High School parking lot often floods and that is owned by the Village. They are sharing the tennis courts at the middle school and the Greenacres playground. Regular communications would be helpful.”

Klein said, “The key here is trust and communication. Attending Village meetings to show an interest is important. Payment of school taxes (in two installments) is an example of a successful collaboration.”

Krikendall-Rodriguez emphasized her involvement. She said, “For six years I have regularly attended Board of Education and Board of Trustee meetings. One suggestion is for both boards to meet more frequently in Village Hall or at the high school so that everyone can attend. I would suggest more shared services…. Freightway is an example where the two board need to work together.… installment billing of taxes will be great for our residents. Traffic is another area for collaboration.”

Responding to a question on building consensus regarding fiscal matters and budgeting Kirkendall-Rodriguez said, “We need to go out to reach the community in different ways… to
get everyone from newcomers to empty nesters. I would go to the train station from 5:30am- 10 am and also sit in front of DeCiccos. We need to get all these views and hear all of these voices. It is easier to build consensus. We need to go to where the people are – we can’t wait for them to come to us.”

Yusuf said, “Building consensus means listening to other viewpoints, being respectful and collaborating. When I was the PT Council President, safety was an issue. I listened to everyone’s viewpoints and respected their views. We need to speak to everyone so that we can come up with the best plan.”

Klein said “One of the core attributes we are looking for in a board member is the ability to build consensus and be part of a team. You do this by being thorough in your listening skills, not having an agenda and being open minded. The key here is for the board to demonstrate sincere interest and a process for data gathering. We want people to understand that we’re being thorough.”

One of the lighter moments in the forum were the answers to the question, “What are 3 adjectives your children would use to describe you and are they right?”

Klein quoted a letter of recommendation his son had written for him that called him “patient and curious,” and said he could “be a lot of fun.” He said, “These are all good attributes and I am open minded as well.”

Kirkendall-Rodriguez said her kids would call her a “great cook” and said she has been very inventive during the crisis. They would also call her “a jaguar mom” as she is “emphatic about how they do their homework.” In addition, she is “linguistic and talkative,” as she speaks to the children in Spanish and has also has them enrolled in Chinese classes. Fourth, she said they would describe her as “loving.”

Yusuf said her kids would call her “organized” as she likes to get things done and does not like procrastinating. She is also “chatty” and engages with people who she meets around town. She is “loving” and said she likes “to help people and to give advice” She added, “It gives me great joy.”

A question was posed about the candidates’ recommendations for developing a long-range facilities plan:

Klein said, “There is already a long-range plan underway. You need to hire the right consultants.
The first step is to know what you’ve got. He quoted Teddy Roosevelt who said, “The first thing is to know how many trees I have …. (he continued) The better your information, the more nimble you are…. as someone who did this for a living, you need a professional to create that timeline and provide information.”

Kirkendall recommended getting more community involvement. She would “talk to the stakeholders who are in the schools.” She recommended setting us a committee, including “empty nesters who can see why the money is being spent.” She said, “Do an inventory of the facilities and the building conditions and marry the facilities plan with a long-term financial plan.” She said, “We need master facilities plan along with financial plan and model.”

Yusuf said, “The District does a building conditions survey every couple of years. I was on the building level committee for Heathcote for the last plan. There was a district level committee that rolled up this information. Get out to the community and explain the projects… and then work on the budget.”

In closing statements the candidates said the following:

Bob Klein
“Here are four facts to know about Bob Klein….

-I offer a new perspective. The board needs to be diverse both professionally, culturally, intellectually… The more views you get the better the outcome is.

-I am an empty nester on a fixed income.

-I am an active volunteer and helped found “Neighbors for Refugees” to help refugees get re-settled in Westchester.

-I am semi-retired and have the time to do this. It is almost a part time job. “

Amber Yusuf
“I hope you can see now why I am so enthusiastic about having the opportunity to serve as trustee on the Board of Education. For the last 10 years my volunteer experience has been around education in the Scarsdale Schools. Most recently as PTC President I had the opportunity to work directly with the district cabinet, the board and Dr. Hagerman. After I finished my years as PTC President, I took a year off to evaluate what I should do next. I discovered that education was my passion and where I wanted to spend my time. I made a thoughtful and deliberate decision to apply to the SBNC to be a candidate for the Board of Education and I am honored to be nominated by the SBNC.”

Mayra Kirkendall-Rodriguez
My whole life I have been a member of a team. I am one of 15 children…. having to work things out is in my genes. I have worked in over 30 countries in six different languages. I worked and participated in conflict resolution courses at Hebrew University because I am a Raoul Wallenberg Scholar. As an MBA from Wharton, it’s all about working on teams. I worked with lots or different people in Scarsdale whether it’s cleaning up for the cub scouts or generating newsletters at the Old Scarsdale Neighborhood Association. Right now, our children’s challenges know no borders. We are going to have to reimagine what a global education should be in Scarsdale. Our students can be leaders can be leaders in global economic and health initiatives. I believe in teaching our children gratitude because there are millions around the world who couldn’t even imagine, much less have, such a great school system.”

If you missed it, you can watch the recorded candidate forum on the League website (www.lwvs.org) or at this link -

Your ballot must be received by mail by the district office by June 9th.

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