When you talk to prospective voters about what the Board of Education can–and cannot–do, what do you tell them? Simply put: What are the roles and responsibilities of a Board of Education?
The Board of Education is really a governance body. We are involved in policy development and policy revision. We are responsible for reviewing and approving the programs of instruction. We don’t write curriculum, but we do review it and approve it. We are responsible for the hiring and an appraisal of the superintendent and the review is done on an annual basis. And then we also act as a conduit between the community and the superintendent and the administration.
COVID affected the academic performance of students in Verona, around the country, and around the world. How should Verona schools get student success back on track and how will you get the administration and the community to support that?
As a district, we’ve already started that, using the data that we’ve collected through MAP Growth, which is done throughout the year. We are able to track student growth, and it gives teachers better opportunities to identify deficits and strengths of our students. Last year, we approved the Edmentum Exact Path program, which is the companion program to MAP Growth. That is another tool that teachers have to help fill any gaps that developed throughout COVID.
It offers remediation programs, so it’s really good for helping fill the gaps as an intervention program that we can use within the general education classrooms, and it also offers enrichment for students who are ready to be pushed to the next level. From a board perspective, it’s really about whatever programs the administration brings to the table that they feel are appropriate to fill those perceived and real gaps that students face and will continue to face after COVID. It’s not really a board role to dictate how to get students on track. That responsibility lies with the superintendent and the administration. We’re constantly revising policy to test and remedy student achievement and student impact. As a parent, I have ideas and, as a teacher, I have ideas, but as a board member, you know, that’s not necessarily the role of the board. It would come down to whatever the superintendent and the administration brought to us in order for us to approve.
What should the role of parents be in public school education?
It is essential for parents to play an active role in their child’s education. They should be aware of what their student is learning and when they’re learning, which requires effective communication from a district standpoint. Our teachers do an excellent job of communicating what is being learned and how it’s being done. In the end, parents have the right and should advocate for their children on every level. And likewise, it’s the role of the district to make sure that parents understand what is being taught. So not just communicate what’s being taught, but make sure that parents have an understanding of the importance of what’s being taught and how it’s being taught. With that understanding, parents can make informed decisions in advocating for their children. I don’t know that the Board of Education has to define that for each family. There are limitations due to laws and, you know, you know, based on our policies, that would limit the level of involvement. Parents can’t be in the classrooms with their children, but I think that, when parents are educated on what their children are learning and how their children are learning it, they feel involved and they feel prepared to either help or to advocate.
Over the last several years, there’s been an effort to politicize school board elections with state and national issues that are not related to local education and school governance. How would you handle this politicization?
I have handled it already. I’ve experienced it already. Parents have a right to speak at board meetings, as long as they are within the code of conduct in our policies. They have the right to speak about anything during public comment at the end of our meetings. You really can’t limit that, other than the timing of it. Parents have a right to advocate on the behalf of their children and board members have an obligation to listen to it. The way the code of conduct and the board meetings are structured is a source of frustration for some members of the public. Our board meetings are designed for a board meeting in front of the public. By law we have to discuss most of our matters and our decision-making in front of the public. And we are required to listen to public comment to help inform our decision. What we are not allowed to do, based on our district policy, is to engage in conversation and debate with members of the public at those meetings. I know that this frustrates members of the public. They’ve expressed that to me, but that’s the nature of our meetings. Public comment is common. It’s not question and answer. That’s just the nature of the Board of Education meeting. And as frustrating as it is, I think we listen, we make decisions based on the information we gain from the public and the information we gain from the administration. I, as a board member, do not make decisions based on politics. I make decisions based on what the most positive impact will be on our students.
Recently, the BOE got an evaluation of Verona school culture from Grand River Solutions. What is your assessment of diversity, equity and inclusion in Verona schools?
That answer is really twofold. I base my assessment of culture and climate on information we gain from the public, particularly the students who come to speak at our meetings and who email us, and information from our faculty and staff. And based on that, I think we have a tremendous amount of work to do to make sure that everyone in our district feels safe, and feels valued and heard and seen. And that is particularly true for our students. I agree with Ms. Shipper’s [Jody Shipper, co-founder and managing director, Grand River Solutions] recommendation to institute annual or hopefully biannual climate and culture surveys for all of our staff and for our students at the appropriate age level. And to make sure that those surveys look different for each and make sure that the information that we’re getting is qualitative and quantitative. No recommendations have been brought to the board from the superintendent yet but that is one that I would hope to see as something that we could institute on a regular basis and make part of our annual practice because measuring in a standardized way is really important. It gives people in our community and people in our school district, particularly our students, a voice where they may not feel heard. This is just one tool where we can help them feel more valued. But as it stands right now, I don’t think our climate and culture is moving in a positive direction. I hope for the opportunity to continue the work to change that.
You served on the BOE during one of the most disruptive times for education in modern history. What did you take away from that and how will it affect how you approach the challenges ahead?
I have learned how to listen better. I’ve learned to lead with humanity and empathy without taking things personally. That was probably the hardest lesson to learn. As a board member, I will make decisions that are often unpopular, because I feel they are in the best interest of our entire student population, and people, even my own fellow board members, will disagree with me. It’s inevitable and people won’t always communicate that disagreement in a respectful manner. But that isn’t necessarily a personal affront. It’s a communication issue. When those disagreements happen, and they are heated, when I’m faced with somebody who’s angry with me, I have learned that I often have to go back to the way I’ve communicated that and how I’ve relayed a message or how I’ve argued my decision. I’ve had to really look at that and say, Where did I go wrong? How could I have done that better? Being on virtual meetings with 500-plus people and hearing comments reiterated over and over and over again has really forced me to reflect in a different way. There’s not always that luxury of time to reflect over weeks and months or even days. I go back to my teacher background and I have to reflect immediately and adjust immediately. It was awful in the trenches. It was not fun. There was nothing enjoyable about it, but it has definitely changed me for the positive. It’s made me a better board member. It’s taught me how to use my voice more effectively. And it’s taught me how to stick to my guns when I’m really sure and I’m feeling really strongly that what I’m advocating for is really in the best interest of our students. But it’s also taught me how to compromise more effectively in order to reach consensus, which is essential for a well- and high-functioning board.
The BOE will soon begin work on a new strategic plan. What are your top 3 priorities for that plan and why?
The first priority is this broad umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly for climate and culture. And underneath that lives hiring and curricula and social and emotional learning. Facilities is a second priority. Being on the Buildings & Grounds Committee this year, I have learned a tremendous amount. We have a new director of facilities, who’s really dynamic and is really opening my eyes and teaching me a lot. We just spent a ton of money on this referendum, and part of the strategic plan needs to be, how are we going to keep that up? How are we going to keep that fresh and new? How are we going to make sure that our maintenance reserves are robust, and that we are spending money on worthy projects. Student achievement is our third priority. How are we looking at student achievement? How are we preparing our students for the next industrial revolution? How are we adjusting our curricula and our program of studies? All of this stems from really looking at stakeholder concerns, and gathering as much information as we can from our community–members that are part of our school district and members of the community that are not part of the school district either anymore or never were or are not yet–and making sure this plan aligns with those stakeholder concerns. In speaking to constituents and community members, one of the major concerns with our last strategic plan and just in general is that they don’t feel heard. They feel that decisions are made in a vacuum. And I’m going to add a fourth priority: communication. That really needs to be part of our strategic plan. We need to create a long-term plan on how we’re going to change the way that we communicate as a board, as a district, community to board and community to district. We can consistently improve upon that. We can assess it annually and improve on that. It’s always been a board goal. It’s still a board goal. We are constantly rating ourselves as a board when we self-evaluate and it’s consistently our lowest evaluation. I really think it needs to be a part of this strategic plan.
The school district has shared tasks with the municipal government for a long time. On your platform, you talk about setting up shared services with other districts. What services are you looking to share and why?
We have opportunities for programs of study. We do this already with universities; Syracuse University is one of them. This isn’t a board decision, but this is what I would like to have discussions on in an ed committee. Looking at the districts around us and seeing what programs of study they offer that we can also take part in, and vice versa. What do we offer in our district that maybe Cedar Grove doesn’t offer that we can take part of? I know, for example, we already do a shared life skills program with our special services program in Cedar Grove. And I know parents have been advocating for that here. Because both populations who require a life skills program are very small. It is cost effective to do a shared service program like that, but there may be other opportunities. I take this from my own experiences of Verona High School. I was in Verona High School eons ago. I was able to take part in shared services programs with Glen Ridge, the drama program, and I believe there were other music programs that we partnered with, and there are more opportunities for that now, especially with significantly better technology than I had when I was in Verona High School. We do that with our athletics as well already with ice hockey with Glen Ridge. There are opportunities there as well. And what sort of shared programs can we do internationally as well? These all cost money, so we need to look where that fits in the budget, but it’s something to look for going forward as we start to look at our budget for next year, which they’re going to be starting very soon.
A special ballot initiative in 2018 gave Verona schools dedicated funding for mental health services. On your platform, you call for increasing social workers in our elementary and middle school. Why is this needed and how would you fund it?
Well, that would be funded through our general fund. That would have to be included in our budget. I think that this sort of coincides with the recommendations from Grand River Solutions. One of them was a reevaluation of our HIB [Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying] process, which our superintendent has already started, and she will be making further recommendations to the board in the coming months regarding that, but to coincide with this idea of conflict resolution. It also fits into our diversity, equity and inclusion work in general. Social workers play a vital role in our schools. Our gen ed classroom kids take part in a social and emotional learning program that is run by the gen ed teachers, and I think there’s a lot more that we can do with that. If we had more social workers, we could have them pushing into classrooms that lesson, and we could be doing more. We could be doing more small group work where kids who seem to be struggling are pulled out, and working in groups to work through conflicts or to do role playing where they are practicing conflict resolution. I know we spoke about bringing back peer mediation at the elementary schools, which is a big piece, but we need social workers to run those programs and help guide our students. Research has shown that having mental health support in our schools that’s accessible at all hours of the day is really essential for helping students feel safe and valued, and helping them work through these conflicts. We owe it to our kids, based on what they’ve been through. We asked them to carry a tremendous load. I’ve said it in meetings, and I know we hear it all the time that kids are resilient and they are, but they need help with that heavy lift they do. We have a responsibility to help support them emotionally.