In discussing the public’s response from a listening session held last Thursday by herself and three other board members, JD school board member Wendy Rhodes, far right, nominated Susan Petrosillo as the next board president because of her experience and “commitment to communication.” (photo by Lauren Young)
After the last Jamesville-DeWitt Board of Education meeting incited frustration from district residents about its lack of transparency in searching for its three board member replacements, the board this week appointed two former members to fill two vacancies on its board — without public input or an election.
Though the board has finally filled its vacancies left by former Board President Mark Schulman and member Patrick Brown, some district residents are angry that the process was private and public input was disregarded, calling upon the board to review its “lack of empathy” and transparency.
After the board’s last meeting on Nov. 19, Acting President and current Vice President Virginia Murphy said the board went into executive session to discuss the appointments because the process involved naming those candidates.
While the board discussed holding a special election versus going with its “past practice” of choosing veteran board members, the board “choose again to go with a veteran board member because this board can greatly benefit from the experience they bring to the table,” Murphy said during the board’s Dec. 3 meeting. “To have an election at this point in the year … you’re bringing someone forward who will not have been trained at all.”
The board unanimously appointed former board President Ken Dawe, of DeWitt, and former board member Dr. Dana Corcoran, of Fayetteville, during the meeting. Both were sworn in immediately and will serve until May 2019. Murphy said either member can run for a full term at that time if they choose.
“I’m excited to get back to business,” said Corcoran, who was elected last May 2017 but resigned on Oct. 2 of this year because of a “personal conflict.”
“It’s a really great cause, so when they asked I said yes,” said Dawe, who has also been a member of the district’s external audit committee for several years. This is the third time he has been called to fill a vacated board position. He has previously served two three-year terms on this school board.
Public response from first listening session
Following a listening session hosted last Thursday by board members Susan Petrosillo, Bruce Van Schaick, Juanita Rivera-Ortiz and Wendy Rhodes, Petrosillo said about 20 community members showed up and discussed a range of concerns and formulated ideas.
“I felt that we were there to listen, and we did a pretty good job of listening,” she said. “There were a lot of questions we attempted to answer to the best of our ability, but there were some things we couldn’t discuss, and we were very clear with public what we couldn’t discuss based on our own protocol as a board.”
Key topics from their discussion included:
“We also got the feeling that the district gives the impression that we don’t care about our parents or what our parents think — I know for a fact that’s not true,” she said.
Petrosillo said there will be more office hours this Thursday, Dec. 6, and next Thursday, Dec. 13.
While these listening sessions are being held, board member Juanita Rivera-Ortiz asked Murphy if the board would respond to Nancy O’Connor’s speech from the last meeting — where she was supported by nearly 40 of her fellow classmates — during which she said the district embodies a “culture of verbal abuse” and “hasn’t gotten better.”
Murphy said she asked for emails but “did not receive any emails.”
When asked if the board would respond to teachers, Murphy said, “I think they’re looking to see how we act, demonstrating that we heard them.”
When Rivera-Ortiz asked, again, if the board would respond to its constituents or has a plan to, Murphy dodged the question and instead stated, “I believe they would like to see us act in a perhaps, more professional manner … they feel that there has been some mismanagement, whether that is true or not, I’m not sure, but they feel as if there has been some mismanagement, they would like to see us correct our behavior.”
Board member Wendy Rhodes also publicly nominated Petrosillo as the next board president because of her experience as a former president and her “commitment to communication.”
Acting President Murphy quickly shut down the discussion, however, and said nominations are usually done in executive session and voting in public.
New ground rules
Upon opening its first community comment period during its Dec. 3 meeting, Murphy said the board revised its ground rules to the state that meetings are “not public forums” and “if you have a comment about a student or staff member, please refrain, and email the board president.”
“The updated ground rules are just the first step in an ongoing process to improve communications at J-D,” said Murphy.
A tool will also be added to the district’s website to explain where to go for answers to questions, she said.
While Murphy said these changes are a step in improving its transparency, some students and parents still see fogginess in what they deemed clarity.
“I’m a little disappointed with the board’s decision not to hold a special election … especially because you’re not asking for community input,” said student Max Mimaroglu. “Transparency is to ask the public who we want to represent us, rather than telling us who you think we should be represented by.”
“The recent resignations from the board and the questions of a special election is one incident of a space where greater communication and transparency about decision-making processes would be greatly appreciated by taxpayers, community residents and people who have elected the board members,” said district parent Amy Kallander.
Kallander said she would also appreciate public statements from those who resigned because they “owe it to their constituents.”
“I have watched all the problems unfold and I’ve seen a common thread — at its core, the dignity of students is being regularly compromised, irregularly reported and no restorative justice has occurred,” said parent Rachel Wagner. A larger issue, she said, is “a lack of empathy.”
When news of the board’s vacancies broke, former board member Michelle Kielbasinski said she reached out to all board members by email to relay her interest in serving, but received no response. Upon finding out the vacancies were filled, she reached out again to the board to ask why — but received no response.
Kielbasinski said because the board was publically elected, conversations should take place publically, especially in appointing new board members.
“I think this board did the community a disservice by denying them the transparency they deserve,” she said.
Two listening sessions are planned this Thursday and next Thursday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Community Library of DeWitt & Jamesville, located at 5110 Jamesville Road in Jamesville. The next Jamesville-DeWitt board of education meeting will be held on Monday, Dec. 17 at the district office.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.