This year’s Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Board of Education (BOE) elections on May 21 were expected to be rather inconsequential. The petition deadline passed on May 3 with three incumbents in the field running for three spots. But the addition of a write-in candidate presented itself at a May 8 candidates forum at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC), with about 25 people in attendance.
In her opening statement, Erin Croyle, a former journalist with local government experience in Virginia, said she missed the petition deadline because the issues important to her didn’t come to light in time. A mother of three children, the oldest with Down syndrome, Croyle said she spends a lot of time in schools working to understand issues students face and make sure that their wellbeing is considered in every action.
Croyle’s opponents are established BOE personalities: president Robert Ainslie, running for a fifth term, Bradley Grainger, also running for a fifth, and Eldred Harris, running for a fourth.
Among the key issues discussed during the two-hour long forum were the hiring of Committee on Special Education (CSE) chairs, academic tracking, living wages for educational support professionals (ESPs), and bullying culture.
A question from a mother of an autistic child in the district with an individualized education program (IEP) pertained to a rumor of the potential hiring of CSE chairs without special education experience and knowledge, and a worry that her child’s education and needs aren’t prioritized. Grainger dismissed the concern by asserting that CSE chairs will be specialists with special education training, and that ICSD’s $131 million budget allows the board to shift resources in the case of special indication. Harris answered by discussing the district’s introduction of co-teaching models and instructional coaching to each school. Croyle, who studies special education law, stressed the importance of providing the necessary staffing for classrooms that have students with IEPs.
Another question asked the candidates’ opinion on academic tracking, and why ICSD decided to de-track the middle and high schools. Croyle honestly admitted she needs to do more research on the issue. Harris criticized the basis of tracking and praised the benefits of station teaching, and said that even though ICSD spends $19,000 on each child, it is just getting to the point where the community and teachers are prepared to move in the direction of the teaching model. Grainger said the district has been successful in heterogeneous grouping and moving away from tracking, although faculty training takes time. The main obstacle, he said, exists with parents that prefer tracking. Ainslie said de-tracking in the high school increased academic performance.
The topic of ESPs being underpaid isn’t new to the board, according to Grainger, who said if one measures the value of an ESP’s health care contract and pension, it exceeds the living wage. The issue, he said, is many ESPs only work 1300 or 1400 hours a year. Croyle, whose son has an ESP, took a different stance. “I know what these aides have to do, and I am so passionate about this that I say absolutely we must up their wages,” she said.
A question regarding how the candidates plan to solve ICSD’s permanent culture of bullying and operationalize the state’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) prompted the most discussion. Harris and Grainger both acknowledged that issues like anti-Semitism and anti-LGBTQ are national in scope. Harris emphasized that the culture of schools has to change through administrative personnel changes, and that the district is exploring introducing social emotional development starting in kindergarten, which involves social workers, psychologists, and teachers teaching children how to identify their emotional states and deal with them. He said the district needs to move to a model of restorative justice, which would require training teachers to help a child identify the cause of bad behavior. Croyle commended the whole board for its commitment to the issue, which she said is complicated by the rise of technology and social media. She added that there “are no bad kids,” and stressed the importance of support staff, school psychologists, and social workers reaching out to children and being available and trained in recognizing signs for suicide and bullying.
A rather intense dialogue ensued on the topic when an audience member, who implied that he is from Puerto Rico, said that bullying is ingrained in U.S. culture, and asked the incumbents, “When you are failing, and you are a lot, a lot of kids are in pain. A lot of families are in pain. So, who’s accountable? Who is going to that kid and say, ‘I’m sorry. I have failed you to provide a safe space for you to come here, grow up, and become a better citizen’?” Grainger replied that the three incumbents are accountable, and if the audience thinks someone else can do a better job, then they should elect that person. He said the board is addressing the issues the man brought up, but there’s no silver bullet and the board is open to suggestions for improvements.
The audience member countered that there are hundreds of families that ICSD is ignoring, in his words racial minorities, and said the district is putting out fires but not stopping the arsonists. In response, Harris once again said a culture change is needed, that ICSD is trying to empower children to be able to empower themselves, and emphasized the amount of time he has spent over the last decade addressing such concerns.
To the audience member, Harris said, “You can work with us, or you can become one of the members of the community who thinks it’s appropriate to actually cast stones sitting on the outside instead or giving us your energy so we can move forward. That’s a choice you have to make, and we’re inviting you in.”
The man replied, saying they’re fighting for the same thing, but that he was offended by Harris’ assumptions about him being an outsider. He said there are more choices than what the BOE is providing, and what Harris suggested has not worked.
The final question for the candidates was about the three district propositions inthe May 21 vote: an annual budget of $131,954,987 (an increase of 2.72 percent from last year), a routine capital reserve proposition, and a bond issue of $120 million for improvements to buildings over the next decade, which would include safety updates for entrances to every building. The propositions have already been approved by the board. Croyle abstained and said she would offer her opinions at another time. Grainger, though, said he would like to hear her thoughts, to which Croyle asked that he respect her answer.