Scarsdale Forum Proposes Formation of a Permanent Committee to Facilitate Communication Between the School District and Stakeholders

ScarsdaleForumLogoThe Scarsdale Forum is proposing the formation of a permanent advisory committee to improve communications among stakeholders in the Scarsdale learning community including the Board of Education, the district administration, educators, students, parents and community members.

Citing the need to improve communications in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group is calling for “transparent, substantive, timely and ongoing communications between the school district, Board of Education and community stakeholders. The purpose of the Scarsdale Community Communications Committee (SCCC) would be to “promote synergistic communication and participation among and between educators, parents, students, the wider Scarsdale community, the BOE and the District, among other stakeholders in the Scarsdale learning community and educational hierarchy.

The Education Committee proposal notes that during the school closures and the restart process, many stakeholders wanted to express themselves and become engaged in the process, and this committee could facilitate that engagement. The proposal says, “Many stakeholders desired more interactive opportunities to express their thoughts over remote learning experiences. In addition, there appeared to be heightened interest among stakeholders in becoming more involved in the development of the Restart Plan.”

The proposal envisions that the SCCC would be an active committee, ready to become engaged whenever the need arises. According to the proposal, “This proposal envisions the SCCC as an active, vibrant committee, ready to become more or less engaged as events demand, both during periods when communication and participation strategies are necessary to support ongoing information sharing, as well as during the rare occasions when immediate action may become necessary. As current events have shown, an unexpected crisis may consist of power outages greater than several days, or a long-term situation such as a global pandemic that has the potential to exert a profound impact on the lives of stakeholders and the functionality of school operations.”

Barry Meiselman is the Chair of the Scarsdale Forum Education Committee that is proposing the formation of the SCCC. We asked him a few questions to learn more about the proposal:

Why is the education committee proposing the formation of the School Community Communications Committee now? What was the impetus?

The pandemic and community reaction to the Restart Plan seemed to indicate that there might have been better ways to engage a broader representation of stakeholders in both the Restart planning process and decision-making for the start of the upcoming school year. Stakeholders desired more constructive, interactive and inclusive opportunities to contribute to the planning, policy development and decision-making that formed the basis for the Restart Plan.

How will members of the SCCC be selected?

The report cites a toolbox developed at MIT that identifies the roles that should be assumed by those who participate in an SCCC-like committee, as well as procedures to ensure appropriate selection of committee members from the stakeholder community. Certain decisions about the SCCC will need to be made when the committee develops its mission and goals. The Education Committee is confident that these details can be worked out in a reasonable fashion, utilizing the framework provided in the report.

In the discussions about the restart plan this summer, the community was not able to hear the perspective of the teachers until very late in the game. Will teachers be included on the committee?

Yes, educators are a key stakeholder group. The sense gleaned from hearing STA leaders speak at a BOE meeting, as well as public comments from the Board and District, is that there was a great deal of collaborative work involving educators in developing the Restart Plan. Perhaps their roles were not as publicized until later in the process. The proposed SCCC would have representatives from major stakeholder groups in the “design thinking” room together, so that everyone could benefit by understanding the rationale behind potentially contentious views. The anticipated result of these discussions would be a plan developed after reaching a reasonable consensus among all stakeholder groups.

The Board has traditionally held all negotiations with teachers in private sessions, which prevents transparency with the community. How will this committee facilitate increased transparency while respecting this tradition?

We all recognize the sensitivity involved in negotiations between the STA and the District, and the constraints that might place on what’s doable despite what appears to be reasonable expectations by the community. There’s no simple answer, but at the end of the day, it might have helped stakeholders to have a better understanding of the role and perspectives of educators at the outset of the Restart Plan development process.

In times of crisis, the school administration and BOE have limited time to meet their own obligations. Do you think it’s reasonable to ask them to participate in another committee at the same time?

Effective participation and communication strategies must be a high priority for the District and BOE, during periods when such strategies are necessary to support ongoing information sharing, as well as during the crisis situation we had last spring when schools were initially closed. These strategies are just as important now, as the pandemic has turned into a long-term situation. The Education Committee believes they are key components for the successful rollout of the District’s overall Strategic Plan and its Information Technology Plan, as well as other initiatives that are being considered. That is why the SCCC is viewed as a permanent and neutral entity, working in an advisory capacity with the District, BOE and community.

To some degree, it is the role of the Board of Education to represent the wider community and to present these views to the administration. Is this process working? If not, why?

Indeed, the BOE is a group of individuals elected by the community for representation. The SCCC is a forward-thinking proposal that provides a workable platform to enable a diverse group of stakeholders to maintain an ongoing, relevant, interactive and innovative dialogue as a vital adjunct to help inform successful District planning, policy development, decision-making and operations. It is very much a collaborative venture among stakeholders, which includes the BOE, District, educators, students, parents and community members who may not have children attending district schools at this time.

Have you submitted your proposal to the school administration and Board of Education? What was their response?

Both the District and BOE have the report. I will be presenting the report at the BOE meeting on October 19th and then we will have a better idea of their reaction. The Education Committee is optimistic that the response will be positive based on public statements made by District leadership and BOE members that appear to support the conceptual basis for creating an SCCC. It was also gratifying to learn that the District partially used the same research cited by the Education Committee’s report to develop the District’s own set of beliefs that formed the basis for curriculum decisions for the 2020/2021 school year. Finally, another positive sign is the BOE/District’s Community Engagement Committee, created towards the end of 2019, and the work it will be doing to update the District’s Communications Plan, originally developed several years ago.