This year’s Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Board of Education (BOE) elections on May 21 were expected to be rather inconsequential. With three incumbents running to remain on the board, it started out to seem things would continue as they have been. However, the addition of a write-in candidate has upped the ante on who will remain on the board.
Erin Croyle (Write-In Candidate)
After hearing public outcry about growing dissatisfaction about the current board members, local resident Erin Croyle felt it was her obligation to run for the Board of Education. She has organized a write-in campaign to challenge the current board candidates. In addition to improving transparency in the board’s responsiveness and policies, Croyle wants to see a great deal of improvement in how the board communicates with parents, students, and families about policies.
“Where I came from in the Northern Virginia area, we had what was called an advisory board,” Croyle said. “It was an established board, with bylaws, that would advise the school board on policies within certain sections. There was a special education advisory board, a talented and gifted advisory board, a health advisory board, you name it. Any issues that were of particular interest or concern, there was an actual board and a system set up where issues can be easily addressed, that it’s automatically addressed via this conduit of communication.”
Along with a lack of transparency, Croyle also found there is a severe lack in representation of students with disabilities or individualized education programs (IEPs). Croyle, who has a child with an IEP, wants to ensure those students are being served by the board.
“I know how difficult it is to do it well, and that is something I want to have represented on the school board so there is an understanding of those issues represented within those nine members,” Croyle said. “And that’s currently not there and it’s important to have that there because it’s a voice that is underheard. It’s a minority that’s discriminated against blindly, without repercussions, so much. And I know there are many, many children who are being underserved, not just who have disabilities and IEPs, but who have hidden disabilities out there that we need to keep in mind. According to the CDC, one in five children have emotional and mental health issues, so that is something that needs to be addressed.”
Croyle is also adamant about seeing a larger breakdown in data concerning the performance of schools. Currently, the Ithaca City School District has the Equity Report Card, but she wants to further increase the scope of the data to see which schools are doing great and which are in need of serious work. In doing this, she hopes to find out if there are some policies that vary from school to school, then to implement those in underperforming schools in the hopes it will make a big improvement.
Robert Ainslie (Current Board President)
Back in 2007, Robert Ainslie found the Ithaca City School District was not where it was when he was growing up in Enfield. Seeing as how being a part of the school district has been a continuous part of Ainslie’s life, he was encouraged to run for the Board of Education. One reason, Ainslie said, was to diversify the residential representation of the board, at the time.
“I grew up in a farm out in Enfield and, particularly, there weren’t many rural representations on the board,” Ainslie said. “So, it was an opportunity to provide a voice from the west side of the lake and not just East Hill or South Hill, which was predominately where school board members come from.”
He won the election and one year later was voted board president. Now, 12 years later, Ainslie is looking to remain a part of the board and keep working to improve the Ithaca City School District. Ainslie serves as a member of the Audit Committee and the board's liaison to Enfield Elementary School, Ithaca Public Education Initiative (IPEI), IPEI Roundtable, and the Central New York School Boards Association (CNYSBA). He was encouraged to run to diversify the residential standings of the board. During his time on the board, Ainslie got involved in several issues, with graduation being a specific point for him. He found that among some of the school district’s faults, graduation rates were sub-standard.
“When I first got involved with the board, getting involved with the stats was actually going on in the district,” Ainslie said. “I was looking at graduation numbers and Ithaca High was at 78 percent at that point, and students with disabilities, and certainly underserved students, were not graduating. Students of color were in the 50-percent range. It was unacceptable to me that over 20 percent of the kids at Ithaca High were not graduating on time. We’ve gone from 78 to the mid-90snow, like 95, and we’re certainly recognized as one of the top districts in the country again, in the top 2 percent.”
Ainslie saw the district’s sub-par graduation rates were improving, although getting the remaining 5 percent to walk across the stage is a mission the board is still fighting for. Other initiatives Ainslie sees the board working on include increasing all student opportunities to take part in AP classes, as well as increasing the career opportunities available to students.
He feels there are not enough career opportunities being offered for students and that college should not continually be forced onto students as their only option. While there is only one challenger to the board this year, Ainslie welcomes competition and feels it is a necessity to hear new ideas from those looking to be a part of the board.
Eldred Harris (Board Member)
Seeking a fourth term, Eldred Harris has established a lengthy list of goals to work on with the board. Since moving to Ithaca over 30 years ago, he has been deeply involved in Ithaca’s education system. From his undergraduate years volunteering at GIAC and Southside Community Center to becoming an involved parent within ICSD when he took in his nephews, Harris has been navigating the waters of Ithaca’s education system for many years. In 2002, he played a role in getting the local education advocacy group, Village at Ithaca, started, whose mission remains to advocate for excellence and equity in Ithaca’s public schools.
After working with Village at Ithaca to establish what would become the ICSD Equity Report Card, he was pushed to run for the Board of Education in 2009. Much to his dismay, he discovered that the board wasn’t serving students as well as had been previously believed. Upon seeing the much-needed changes which had to be made, Harris began rallying for hard changes to the system and worked with the board to get Ithaca schools back on track. He was initially driven to the board by a desire to tackle the achievement gap of marginalized kids.
“Graduation rates for that community have gone up from 50 percent to 70 percent, which means we’re not serving 30 percent of the kids still but that 20-percent increase is for [graduating in] four years,” Harris said. “I could play with data all day but that’s a hard number, from 50 to 70. And the kids themselves, no matter what background they’re coming from, they’re happier now, and that’s really important. We want them to be athletic superstars, we want them to start exploring relationships, we want their parents to see them walk across the stage, we want them to really have a chance at exploring what college and career readiness means. All this is great because at the end of the day, if we are not here to service kids, then who are we for?”
Harris is looking to work on other issues. One in particular for him is providing mental health specialists to kids who need them in school. Several options have been discussed among the board members, although a definite plan has not yet been announced. Harris discussed some of the suggestions that have been made to ensure those students are able to have easier access to the help they need.
“Sometimes when kids, from pre-K through seniors, have meltdowns and refuse to participate in classes and rebel and are facing anxiety and depression,” Harris said.“[W]e need to create a better pathway for kids and families to get support—so, having counselors, social workers, psychologists in the building that can focus on academic measure. We have been discussing several strategies for providing that relief. One thing we’re discussing is deepening our partnerships with sister and brother agencies, talking about possibly having some services available in buildings, maybe at the beginning of the day and possibly at the end of the day depending on how things go."
Other plans that were discussed by the board include creating a network of private practitioners with a focus, in particular, on family services so they can help educators in crisis situations.
Brad Grainger (Board Member)
As a board member since 2007, Brad Grainger is looking to ensure that most of the work the board has done continues. While also serving as the board’s finance chair, facilities chair, and as a member of the audit committee, Grainger has been looking to make sure that students are getting the advanced programs they need. He’s also the Board of Education liaison to Boynton Middle School and the Parent Teacher Association Council. Grainger became interested in the board in 2007 after seeing several areas it was dealing with in a state of disarray.
“At that time, the board had just passed a bond in March of 2007 and I was interested in some of the activities there,” he said. “There were issues at the time, and continuing on, including students in activities and I was interested in those items, so some of the same things we’re working on now.”
The biggest triumph Grainger has seen with the board is the stability throughout the entire school district’s leadership. During a Board of Education candidate forum on May 8, Grainger addressed the topic of bullying after an audience member wanted to know who is accountable when the board cannot keep kids safe.
Grainger responded by saying the three incumbents and the remainder of the current board are accountable. However, he continued to say that while there is no silver bullet, the only way to see change would be to elect someone who could do the job better. Grainger concluded by saying that the board is always open to suggestions on how to deal with bullying.