LWV school board candidates forum

On the eve of the school board election held by mail-in ballot only through June 9, the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale on May 31 hosted a virtual forum for three candidates running to fill two open seats on the Scarsdale Board of Education. Each candidate delivered opening and closing statements and took turns fielding nine questions — five posed by members of the league and four questions culled from those sent in by the public.

Amber Yusuf, a PTA/PT Council volunteer and financial tech professional, and Robert Klein, an architect and empty nester, were both nominated by the School Board Nominating Committee in March.

On Monday, May 11, Mayra Kirkendall-Rodríguez, a financial analyst and community volunteer, announced an independent run for the board.

Referencing her years of experience working with the government and financial clients, Kirkendall-Rodríguez said in her opening statement that the Scarsdale community needed to find out how adults would support children’s academic and wellness development during the pandemic; how the school district’s curriculum development, safety and financial plans would be redesigned; and how the board would integrate empty nesters into the school community.

“With your vote, I can contribute my financial risk expertise, academic qualifications, and my desire to support our excellent school district,” she said.

SBNC candidate Yusuf said in her opening statement that with her years of experience volunteering in the schools, she was ready for her next challenge to serve on the board of education.

“I intend to combine my leadership experience, my professional qualifications, my passion for education, and collaborative and interpersonal skills to support and enhance educational excellence in our schools while maintaining fiscal responsibility,” said Yusuf.

SBNC candidate Klein said his motivation to run for the school board was to pay back the “stellar” education his two children received in the Scarsdale school system and that his skills as an opened-minded focused listener would help the board.

“I feel strongly that the exercise of good judgment requires balancing both quantitative, as well as qualitative criteria,” said Klein. “If elected, I would [embrace] working collaboratively with Scarsdale’s educational vision with an eye on fiscal prudence.”

Question 1: As opportunities for public gatherings are currently limited, what innovative methods would you propose the board use to gather feedback and input from all sectors of the community?

Yusuf said the board had pivoted quickly to using Zoom as a format and she believed it had been “effective.” In terms of improving opportunities for outreach, Yusuf said the board could consider virtual meetings for smaller groups of residents, such as holding specific focus groups, rather than just during regular board meetings.

She said a survey sent by the district to assess remote learning  was a “wonderful way to start outreach to parents about e-learning and get their thoughts and ideas. I’d like to see more of those surveys.”

Klein said he agreed with Yusuf’s characterization on the school board’s use of Zoom meetings and said virtual meetings could open up avenues for the board to hold both large and small scale meetings.

“I think the other piece of technology that has really improved … is the notion of surveys that are very quickly tabulated that can … give a pulse on an issue and can be blasted either selectively or to anyone,” he said, adding that even during the pandemic, “tried and true” ways of communicating such as email or phone calls were also options.

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said coming up with a new strategy for communicating due to the pandemic would depend on which sector of the community the board was attempting to reach. If the board were seeking to reach everybody in the community, Kirkendall-Rodríguez said using Zoom was unreliable because some residents are still adapting and learning how to use Zoom to access virtual meetings.

“While it may not sound innovative, I would suggest the telephone to be able to reach … a lot of people who are not used to Zoom, our empty nesters especially,” she said, noting that Facebook messenger would also be an important communication medium, as it allowed for individual conversation as well as focus groups.

“Surveys are fantastic if you really are targeting a segment of the population that is going to have the time and the inclination to answer the questions,” said Kirkendall-Rodríguez. “The problems with surveys are that if the designers don’t put certain safeguards [on] you can have multiple people answering surveys at the same time … and then the data are tainted.”

Question 2: (Scenario) A sharply divided board and community are contemplating whether to move forward with a bond to build cafeterias at Fox Meadow and Edgewood, to install air conditioning in the schools and to complete the additional renovation work on the high school auditorium. How should the board move forward?

Klein said the scenario was in his “comfort zone” because of his many years as an architect and he suggested the district hire “good consultants” to get accurate data. In terms of gaining consensus, Klein said having a transparent process would allow for good communication and good information.

“You need the right expertise to give you the information to make a decision,” said Klein. “You define a problem, you gather data and then you make a decision.”

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said she co-authored a Scarsdale Forum’s Education Committee report to set up metrics and data when a similar scenario came up for the Greenacres School renovation, and noted the need to be “very careful” about working with consultants. “Consultants can pose an enormous operational risk,” she said. “There has to be a framework at the board and the district as to how to correctly go and look for these consultants.”

Yusuf said she wondered why the board in the scenario was divided and would want to find out where the differences were. “I think we have to have good working relationships as board members and we need to understand what our differences are,” she said.

Yusuf added that she also wanted to gain feedback and have inclusive discussion from stakeholders in the community, which included parents, teachers, students and empty nesters

Question 3: What do you believe is the board’s role in curriculum review including remote learning?

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said “cognizant diversity” was imperative for a board to ask questions about curriculum development. She said she had a large net of connections that she would be able to reach out to for input.

“Ask questions about how learning objectives are being designed in remote learning. Find out what kind of resources the teachers need, the administrators [need]. What about the parents?” she said. “We need to be having focus groups to help the parents navigate all of this remote learning.”

Yusuf said the board was responsible for the oversight of curriculum and the governance of the schools. On the district’s recent pivot to remote learning, Yusuf said parents, teachers and students have also been forced to pivot to a new educational norm. “As we move forward, if we have to continue learning in a modified environment, I hope the board will help the district assess students to support any learning gaps,” she said. “That will hopefully move us forward as we navigate … uncharted waters.”

Klein also said the board’s role was wholly based on oversight and governance. Klein added that with the entire world being thrown into a new model of education, he thinks the board is there “to ask the tough questions” and “be the voice of the community.”

“As part of the Greenacres Neighborhood Association, I have exposure like everyone else in this competition to hear the voice of all the other stakeholders,” he said.

Question 4: What, if anything, would you propose to improve upon village government and school collaboration, and on what issues?

Yusuf said the collaboration between the village and the school board on the Butler Field lights project was an example of “great” collaboration. She added that she would love to see the boards continue to meet regularly and to have existing liaisons “continue to have communication between both the board of education and the village government.”

For example, she said the boards could discuss the flooding in the high school parking lot, as well as the sharing of the middle school tennis courts and the Greenacres playground. “These are common spaces … that are shared and I think having regular communications and updates on those would be helpful,” she said.

Klein said the key was “trust and communication” and being active in village matters while on the school board was important. “We’re not only advocating for the students and the school but we’re advocating obviously for the other stakeholders within the community,” he said.

As a regular attendant to village board meetings, Kirkendall-Rodríguez suggested the boards meet more frequently and expand collaboration on more shared services, Freightway redevelopment and traffic safety.

Question 5: What are three adjectives your children might use to describe you and are they right?

Klein said his children would describe him as patient, curious and “a lot of fun,”

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said she her children would describe her as a great cook, a “jaguar mom” and “very linguistic.”

Yusuf said her children would describe her as organized, chatty and loving.

Question 6: What is your opinion of how the board handled this year’s budgeting process and timeline?

Yusuf said the board never could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact, and in her view the district’s pivot to e-learning and its effort to gain community feedback was a thoughtful approach.

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said the budgeting process and timeline this year was “one of the best processes I have ever seen from the school board.” She added that because the board eliminated its time limit on public comments, she felt when she spoke about the budget, people were “listening and respecting” what she said.

“I think that the board of ed now has the army approach. You tell them what you’re going to tell them. You tell them and then you tell them what you told them,” she said, and praised the board for having stress-tested the budget data.

Based on his experience working with budgets as an architect, Klein said he was “very impressed” with the board’s budget process this year.

“They pivoted very quickly with changes and unknowns that no one could predict,” he said. “That required a lot of skills that I think were definitely in the best interest of the community… they did their homework; they did their research.”

Question 7: What process would you recommend for developing, communicating and funding a long-range master facilities plan?

Klein said the district was already acting upon a long range master facilities plan but, hypothetically, hiring proper consultants would be important, as well as figuring out what facilities are already in place.

“[You’ve] got to know what you have, [you’ve] got to know the condition of [the buildings]. You need information,” he said. “The better the information, the more nimble it’s formatted in terms of analysis, the better you are.”

Relating back to her comments about the importance of “cognizant diversity,” Kirkendall-Rodríguez said everyone in the school needs to be included in the process for the master facilities plan, including the janitors, administrators, teachers and psychologists as “they are all walking in these facilities all the time and they have a different perspective.”

Kirkendall-Rodríguez added that she would like to see a resident committee formed to reach out to empty nesters who might be able to add their expertise while also seeing the fruits of their labor.

Yusuf said when she was Heathcote PTA president she was part of the development stage of the facilities plan during the district’s building condition survey. While on the building level committee, she worked with a group to discuss priorities within the schools and that for the future, she would like to include students in the middle and high school level as stakeholders in the discussion.

Question 8: How would you build consensus within the community regarding fiscal matters and budgeting?

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said consensus was “very important” and reaching out to the community was paramount. She said she would volunteer to go to the train station once a month to talk to residents about the schools.

“There’s a lot of voices right now that are not being heard,” she said. “That’s what we want in a board, to hear all of these voices and then it’s much easier to build consensus.”

Yusuf said building consensus on any topic relies on “listening to different viewpoints, being respectful of other opinions, building good working relationships with people and collaborating with a number of different groups to hear different opinions.”

Klein said building consensus was “one of the core attributes” of a board member. In his professional life, Klein said he often found himself building consensus and that being thorough, a good listener, not having an agenda and being open-minded were imperative.

“We need to demonstrate a process. This is not an ad hoc exercise to build consensus. Consensus is a cultural thing,” he said. “You either are identified as being good listeners and interested in consensus or you’re not.”

Question 9: What are your thoughts about the board’s community engagement listening sessions held this year?

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said the board had been “improving” compared to other boards in terms of focusing and listening to the community. She said the board can’t rely on the regular infrastructure and media to hear the voices of all segments of the Scarsdale community.

“What the board of ed’s been doing right now has been good, but we really need to expand it so we can be more inclusive of all of our residents,” she said.

Klein said he was “a big fan” of board-resident listening sessions which are part of a “kit of tools” for the board communications.

“Whether we need to have more of them, I think it really depends on a moment in time. I don’t think there’s any one size fits all necessarily,” he said. “You want to be flexible, if there’s something that arises and a big decision has to be made, maybe there’s a need for an ad hoc, last minute listening session.”

Yusuf said she had attended a listening session and was “amazed” at how many residents attended. She felt the ideas which flowed out of the community at the meeting were proactive, but that breaking down the ideas and bringing them to action was the real challenge.

“To go through those ideas and see who’s responsible for them and prioritize them and get out to the community again would be wonderful,” she said.

Closing statements

In closing statements, Klein said he offers a new perspective and the board needs to be diverse professionally, culturally and intellectually.

“The more views you get, the better the outcome is and I’ve always encouraged that from my own work as a professional,” he said.

Yusuf said she is “so enthusiastic” about having the opportunity to run for the school board and for the last 10 years her volunteer work has been pinpointed on the Scarsdale schools.

“I believe if elected, I can make a valuable contribution from the start,” she said.

Kirkendall-Rodríguez said she has always been part of a team growing up in a family of 15 and that she has worked with every nationality and within every religious group across 30 countries.

“Right now, a lot of the world is looking inward, but our children’s future challenges know no borders,” she said.

The prerecorded LWV candidates forum can be viewed online at lwvs.org.

The school board election and school budget vote this year will take place via mail-in ballots sent to every eligible voter with stamped return envelopes; ballots must be returned by mail in enough time to arrive at the district by 5 p.m. on June 9.

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