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Alison Singer Explains Why Her Skills and Experience Make Her An Asset to the Scarsdale School Board

AlisonSingerAlison Singer, the current Vice President of the Scarsdale Board of Education, is completing three years of service in June, 2020. She is running as an independent candidate for a second term. Below find responses to our questions about her experience, the Board's management of the COVID crisis and why she would like to serve another term.

Why are you running for the Board of Education? How do you complement the Board and its work?

The Board is deliberately composed of people with distinct knowledge and capabilities. My experience on the board has focused on enhancing student mental health, wellness and academic achievement, supporting our outstanding faculty, developing new policies (including those for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and student and faculty harassment and bullying prevention) and ensuring that our special education families have a strong voice. Over the past three years I have developed trusted relationships with our administration and faculty, have gained tremendous knowledge about school budgeting, teacher union negotiations and facilities planning, and have worked hard to ensure the physical and emotional safety of our students and faculty. These are essential skills for the Board and district as we continue to implement our new Strategic Plan, work on new DEI initiatives, and engage in long-term financial and capital improvement planning.

On a more personal note, the experiences my two daughters had in Scarsdale schools were hugely influential in my decision to run three years ago and are again now. My oldest daughter Jodie was diagnosed with autism when she was two and so we experienced just about all the special education programs in the district. My younger daughter Lauren graduated in 2017 and benefited from all the district has to offer, from AT classes to debate team to the High School's incredible Science Research program, and, thanks to her outstanding high school preparation, in May she will graduate from Yale. Every student’s and every family’s experience is unique, but I believe that having experienced Scarsdale from these two very different vantage points gives me a particularly valuable view of our school programs. To me, Scarsdale is about personalized learning; it’s about creating programs that serve all our students from those who experience academic difficulties and have special needs to those who are high achievers. I want to continue to serve on the Board to ensure that all students in Scarsdale have access to a superior education that will enable them to thrive and become engaged and active citizens, as I believe both my children have.

In addition, I believe the combination of the skills and experience I have gained as School Board Vice President, in my professional work, as a member of several boards, and as a community volunteer make me particularly well-suited to serving for a second term on the Board of Education. There is a steep and long learning curve to board work, and my experience has enabled me to mentor new board members. This system of mentorship is critical to the success and long-term strength of the governing team. Veterans are needed to provide institutional memory, answer questions, and provide guidance. Professionally, I am the founder and president of the Autism Science Foundation, a global nonprofit that provides support for autism research and for families raising children with special needs. In addition to my service on the Board of Education, I also serve and have served on many policymaking boards, including the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, to which I was appointed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as on local disabilities boards, including the Westchester Autism Advisory Council and the New York State Immunization Advisory Council. My past jobs have included serving as the first CEO of Autism Speaks, and as Vice President at NBC Cable and Business Development. I have had a lot of experience creating budgets for large and small companies, for nonprofits and for-profits, in good times and in lean years. As a news producer at NBC, I learned about the importance of communication and of keeping people informed about what is going on in their community. At NBC I was also involved in collective bargaining sessions with multiple unions. I have an undergraduate degree in economics from Yale and an MBA from Harvard Business School and am very comfortable with financial statements, budgets, performance review paradigms, and working with consultants, auditors, and attorneys. Last May, I received an honorary doctorate degree from Emory University for my work in children’s mental health.

What did you enjoy about the last three years and what do you hope to accomplish in the next three years?

I’m not sure anyone actually “enjoyed” the last year. We all lost control over our own lives and our children’s lives because of Covid-19. As the mother of a special needs child, I understand first-hand how scary it can be to feel like some committee or some administrator could make a decision that you think will negatively affect your child. I try to always remind myself that this fear, which often ends up being expressed as anger, is really coming from a place of love--love for our children, and fear that someone or some group is empowered to make decisions that could hurt them. I live with this every day, and I understand the community’s frustration with all the events of the past year.

The Board's and administration’s challenge this year was to try to take the strong emotions off the table and focus on the facts and on what was best for the FULL community, including all the very diverse and divergent parent perspectives, while also incorporating teacher viewpoints, student voices, baffling New York State Dept of Education regulations, and Westchester County and New York State Health department regulations. Our goal was to have as much in person school as could be done so safely. The availability of vaccines was a game changer and as a Board, together with other NY school boards, we successfully lobbied for teachers to be included in vaccination phase 1b in New York and at this point most of our teachers have had at least one and in many cases both vaccine doses. This enabled us to add more in person learning in March and April. The Board also lobbied for needed changes in density guidance to match the science which now has been handed down by the CDC and New York State.

As we carefully emerge from the Covid pandemic, our students will need help reacclimating to school and re-engaging with the world. Students are struggling with the emotional and physical toll of the pandemic. It is critical that we have enough resources in place to serve any students struggling with mental health issues. We must also be ready to support the innovation that emerged during the pandemic including, for example, the growing awareness of the value of small group learning. We must work with our faculty to develop and enhance these advances.

Restart work may have dominated our meetings and the social media headlines, but the Board also has other responsibilities. Scarsdale is not a typical school district. The relationships and partnerships we have built with teachers and with the community were forged over decades by people who hold education as a core value and the Board’s work of upholding the tenets of a Scarsdale education must and will continue. Strategic planning, academic improvements, K-12 consistency in programs and services, high school innovation/entrepreneurship, technology, STEM, multiculturalism, student voice; these are just some of the many important threads that create the amazing Scarsdale school tapestry.

Finally, I’m very proud of the work we’ve done this year to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools. Our new DEI policy (#0105) reflects the Board’s commitment to maintaining a positive and inclusive learning environment for all students, especially those currently and historically marginalized. As a Board, we are committed to ensuring that all students feel safe, included, welcomed and accepted, and experience a sense of belonging and academic success.

The district now includes 1,000 students who are identified as having disabilities. As an advocate for students with special needs, please comment on the growth in the special education budget over the last ten years. Do you think this growth is sustainable?

As a national advocate for children with special needs, I travel all over the country (well, before Covid I did) visiting school districts, learning about and evaluating their special needs programs. There is no district in this country that cares more about its students with special learning needs than Scarsdale. Of course our system isn’t perfect, but our faculty and administrators are implementing the latest evidence-based teaching techniques in our special education classrooms and are differentiating instruction for both classified and non-classified students.

One practice I have strongly supported in Scarsdale is the decision to bring our students who were in out-of-district placements back into Scarsdale. I began advocating for this change when I was chair of Scarsdale CHILD and continued to do so as a member of the Board of Education. It has been accomplished by creating and then expanding our 8-1-2 and integrated co-teaching classes, and by adding sections as these students age up. This strategy is favored by parents and also saves the district money by eliminating expensive tuitions for out-of- district placements. All our Scarsdale children deserve to be educated here in Scarsdale, and all of our students benefit from this experience.

The increase in the number of Scarsdale students classified as having special needs puts us more in line with national averages than in past years. Also, the special education and counseling departments provide academic and other support services to non-classified students as well. As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, we will need to keep a close eye out for students who may now need additional academic and emotional support. It is more important than ever to have enough resources in place to serve these students and their families.

Given the district’s experience with the pandemic this year, do you think that the community’s expectations for the role of the Board of Education has changed?

One of the strengths of our community is the commitment to volunteerism and engagement among our residents. Throughout the past year, the Board has heard many diverse points of view. At one extreme, people thought Covid was overblown and didn’t affect children, and they wanted schools open immediately. At the other end of the spectrum, we heard from residents who felt our decisions to return to in-person learning were too hasty, even reckless, because so little was known about the virus and its many variants. Even today, we are being told by some that there are only two months left and we should wait until students are able to be vaccinated. While those were polar opposite positions, the vast majority of our feedback was somewhere in between. If people say the Board failed in its responsibility to represent community views, then I would say that there was not a clear or consistent community view but rather an incredibly broad and diverse range of views. And equally important, the Board, by necessity, made its decisions based on state requirements, data, and science, while still taking our community’s input into consideration.

Of course, there are many things we could have done better. Hopefully, we will never have to face a situation like this again, but if we do, there are things I would suggest we do differently, particularly in the area of communications. I believe that the Board needs to communicate more frequently with residents and have a greater social media presence, particularly. Crisis management means bending or breaking established rules and protocols, which the Board was reluctant to do. Also, the goal of including many voices in the decision-making meant we had many layers of subcommittees and in some ways that slowed us down, but we wanted to make sure those voices were heard and included, particularly our faculty and staff, who had to implement the educational program.

I think the community's expectation of the Board absolutely changed this year, particularly for people who haven't really followed Board work too much in the past. It was clear in the midst of this crisis that some people wanted the Board to step into a managerial role and make day-to-day decisions. It is important to remember, though, that school boards, like other public bodies, must comply with many laws and regulations, and school boards only have authority in oversight, policymaking, and governance.

This past year it appeared that the Restart Committee made key decisions about remote/in-person learning and school scheduling. Did the Board of Education have oversight of this committee and its decisions?

The Journey Forward process was an effort that tried to include as much community participation as possible while still enabling flexible and rapid decision making. Those interests are usually at odds. The administration established a system of ten subcommittees, based on building-level and cross-cutting themes, which were populated by faculty, administrators, parents, physicians and High School students where appropriate. These subcommittees reported to the Restart Steering Committee. At the beginning of the process in late May, two board members, Pam Fuehrer and Ron Schulhof, were added to the steering committee and participated fully in discussions and decision-making. In February, I joined them on this committee. All members of the Board of Education received summaries of each steering committee meeting. The administration managed the Journey Forward and, as always, Board Members asked probing questions and provided oversight, input, guidance, resources, and feedback.

Current Board protocol requires the Board to “speak as one.” When is there an opportunity for open discussion and debate?

This isn't actually a local protocol. Per New York education law, boards of education are corporate entities, and therefore must act as one body. That said, I think we have seen very robust debates at the board table in advance of decision-making--and that is the right process. At just our last meeting we had a very vigorous and healthy discussion about the goals and implementation strategy of our new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy. Once everyone has had an opportunity to express their ideas and concerns, we make appropriate, agreed-upon changes, then we adopt and support the work as a full Board. This is what it means to act as a corporate body.

While the Board is required to conduct its formal work at meetings in public, there is a lot of work that is done individually or in small teams by Board Members outside of our full board meetings. For example, all Board members can contribute agenda items for each meeting, and then the Board Officers and one additional board member meet with the superintendent before Board meetings to develop the meeting agenda. After the agenda is set, all Board Members send questions and concerns to members of the administration which are usually addressed prior to the meeting. Board Officers are in constant communication with the administration. In between meetings we work on policies, meet with community groups, solicit and respond to community feedback, and engage in advocacy and lobbying on behalf of the district.

What are your thoughts on the SBNC nominating process?

I’m a fan of the nonpartisan nominating process which is why I applied to the SNBC for renomination to the School Board. I served on the SBNC for three years and then became vice chair and then chair of the SBNC Administrative Committee and then chair of the SBNC Joint Committee. When the nonpartisan process works, it works very well. We have many years of experience in which highly qualified candidates were vetted through this process, then elected by the community. In the past, there was an absolute expectation for board members to serve two terms, and this was made clear to all candidates when they were initially selected. The purpose was to ensure that the Board was extremely knowledgeable about district work, which, in turn, allowed complex and long-term goals to be achieved over time. Understanding that this was an extremely important value for our district and community, until very recently, the SBNC always renominated sitting board members for a second term if they wished to continue. While I cannot speak directly to why the SBNC has moved away from this long-time, trusted practice, I do think it remains an important community value, and I believe that on May 18th the community will choose the most qualified and experienced candidates that will best serve our children, district, and community.

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