ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District’s annual Board of Education election will take place Tuesday, May 18, where voters in the district can choose between four candidates for three spots on the Board of Education, as well as choose whether or not to support the district’s request for its largest-ever budget (though the district’s tax rate is still decreasing).
Where and when to vote: Anyone who is over 18, registered to vote in Tompkins County and a legal resident of the district is eligible to vote in the school district elections. Voters can head to one of 12 different polling places from 12-9 p.m. on May 18. Locations of one’s proper voting place can be found here.
What’s at stake: With just one challenger and three incumbents, the make-up of the board can’t actually change that drastically. However, the annual proposed budget, which includes tax ramifications, is also on the table, as well as approval of the use of over $330,000 from the capital reserve fund, primarily for the purchase of two additional school buses. Full ballot here. Coverage of the budget can be found here and here. The district has also published a lengthy explainer webpage.
Candidate profiles, by name:
- Kelly Evans (Challenger)
- Nicole LaFave (Incumbent)
- Moira Lang (Incumbent)
- Ann Reichlin (Incumbent)
Watch the forum from the Village at Ithaca organization here, hosted by Karen Yearwood and Meryl Phipps, one of three that were held last week. In addition to the coverage below, brief bios of each candidate are available on the district’s website.
Evans is the lone outsider on the ballot, though her connection to the school district runs deep: not only does her wife work as a special education teacher in the district, but her child is also a special education student in ICSD.
Evans’ platform has been built on improving the special education experience in ICSD, primarily by boosting support for teachers and students, and making sure that those who are economically disadvantaged are given adequate consideration in board decisions and discussions.
In an interview with the Ithaca Voice and in numerous candidate forums over the last week, Evans argued that large administrator salaries, and associated expenses, unnecessarily drain resources that could be going toward improving student learning.
She said the need to cut administrators and repurpose the money is made even more acute by the mental health needs that are certain to be higher than normal next year, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That money would be better served bringing in more specialists, adding more teachers that could actually do the [Response to Intervention],” Evans said of how the extra money could benefit the special education curriculum. “That would do a wealth of good for our children. […]There’s a great need for more social workers in our buildings. If we got rid of administrators that we don’t need and put it back into teachers’ hands, as we have been for decades, then you have that money to bring those social workers in and work on the well-being of the students and teachers.”
While acknowledging that it would take some time for her to refine her understanding of the scope of the board’s responsibilities, as well as the breadth of its jurisdiction.
She also weighed in on the controversial resignation of Dr. Luvelle Brown, the district’s superintendent, who first announced his intention to leave the district on Jan. 12 before reneging on Jan. 26 amid allegations that are still being investigated by the New York State Department of Education. Evans said she felt that Brown should not have been allowed to return to his post after resigning initially, and that the board should have taken the opportunity to find someone “more dedicated” to the district and not moving on.
Beyond that, Evans has made a point to emphasize transparency between teachers, district administration and the Board of Education, and additionally in the board’s relationship with the Ithaca community. Inherent in that process should be an emphasis on giving voice to those who are experiencing poverty—they were hit uniquely hard by the district’s reliance on distance learning, but it only highlighted the difficulties they face accessing education even in normal times.
“In order to be equitable, you have to be inclusive,” Evans said. “While I think our school district is doing a good job at starting the process of including minorities, I think that the scope needs to be broadened to include not only race, but also economic status, sexual identity. […] I really think that our board, going forward, and our administration need to be more present in those areas, and do a lot more outreach so those communities know they are heard.”
LaFave has served on the Board of Education for two terms and is now seeking a third term, while also vying for a seat on the Tompkins County Legislature.
As it has been before, LaFave’s message for her campaign is somewhat personal: as a single mother of three, she feels particularly invested in how her kids learn in the district and the experiences of students in general.
Beyond that, LaFave is often seen during board meetings calling attention to perceived inequities on a wide range of topics, from students who were especially disadvantaged during distance learning because of internet connectivity to most recently when the board’s policy to disallow anonymous comments was called into question.
“I believe the rent that we pay on this earth is giving back, coneecting with others and loving and caring for our neighbors,” LaFave said. “Being on the board has provided me with the opportunity to work with Ann, to work with Moira, and other board members that have diverse and very different perspectives and political beliefs, but our intentions and our goals are the same.”
As with other candidates, LaFave emphasized the need for far-reaching equity in the education system during the Village at Ithaca forum. She expressed support for New Roots Charter School specifically as a way to achieve some measure of equity through alternative schooling methods, a fairly rare sentiment among ICSD or board officials, both of which normally have an adversarial relationship with New Roots.
Overall, she was circumspect about the equity issues in ICSD, acknowledging that they are larger than the district could hope to handle itself, but that more innovation is needed to cure them within the district—to whatever extent possible.
“This is very systemic, it’s not Ithaca-based,” LaFave said, mentioning a situation that arose at Beverly J. Martin School that involved extra costs for students who wanted to play a musical instrument—a financial barrier to students being able to play. “We have to be committed to not only to addressing the issues but looking out of the box to create alternative and radical solutions to those issues.”
Lang has served on the Board of Education since 2015, one year after retiring from a 35-year career of teaching English in schools. She works on the Curriculum, Human Resources and Policy committees for the board, and this would be her third term.
Perhaps her strongest answer during the Village at Ithaca forum was early on, to a question about the much-ballyhooed “return to the old normal,” that may sound good to some, but as a return to also bad conditions for others. Lang, who pushed giving kids “what they need” as a district in the pursuit of equity,
“The old normal was failing, was not working for all kids,” Lang said. “Everything from technological access, some people have it and some people don’t. Before we so heavily relied on technology, there still was a disparity in what some children were able to accomplish in terms of who had technology and who didn’t. That’s certainly come to light.”
Collaborative work between teachers became crucial to move forward, Lang pointed out, which is something that could be a silver lining of sorts to the pandemic—that time and opportunity for collaboration and professional development should be centered going forward in the district.
One of the harder hitting audience submitted questions during the aforementioned Village at Ithaca forum was posed to Lang (as well as Reichlin), theorizing that the white female members of the board should step back during some discussions and let others talk.
“This is really food for thought,” Lang said. “I do think about patterns of participation, but probably not in this way. […] I think this is a great topic for the board to discuss among ourselves, when we have a moment to talk about it with others. I’d like to think about it myself, what prompts me to talk more or hold back and think about that more.”
Like LaFave, Reichlin is seeking her third term on the Board of Education. She admitted that the past year-plus has been a far more “challenging” experience as a board member, but said she wants another term because of the intriguing ways to improve the education system that exist in the effort to recover as COVID-19 (hopefully) fades away in the coming months and years.
Part of her interest in that rebuild comes from her acknowledgment that the hybrid learning system the district employed as its chief pandemic response was “not successful.” It was the subject of nearly constant criticism at board meetings by parents (though some have said their children thrived under the hybrid/distance model), and the district has already said they don’t intend to continue to use it—at least not as currently formulated.
“There’s all these expectations, and then it’s like someone said ‘Oh, no, actually you don’t have to do this,'” Reichlin said. “You realize that some of those rules are malleable, that you just presumed because it’s always been this way. I think the same thing can be said with the way people have been teaching.”
It’s interesting, to Reichlin, to explore the myriad ways that education can look different after the pandemic—she specifically points to the district-wide asynchronous learning days, held weekly on Wednesdays, that she said could hold intriguing potential going forward, with some tweaks (like being held on school grounds).
“Now that we can go back, what things can we take out of this traumatic experience and do differently?” Reichlin asked, rhetorically. She mentioned the potential for outdoor learning, another example of something that was occasionally used, more common for younger age groups, then suddenly became one crucial way to teach while maintaining safety during the pandemic.
Reichlin declined to comment further on the board’s handling of the Brown resignation situation, only saying that she was glad he is still at the helm of the district and that people can find out the extent of the board’s investigation and conduct through the district clerk.
Results of the election will be posted on IthacaVoice.com once they are available, likely Tuesday night.