Kingston board of education disagrees on methods of public, staff input

The Kingston City School District’s Board of Education last week delayed finalizing its 2021-22 Board Goals over how best to clarify communication from staff. 

Board President James Shaughnessy opened the discussion by asking to strike a passage which included “survey efforts for staff at each of the elementary, middle and high school level” from a more general goal of increasing public community forums. Shaughnessy said he believed there were already mechanisms in place for staff to communicate their feedback. 

“We have a district leadership team, which develops the district comprehensive improvement plan,” Shaughnessy said. “Each building has a building leadership team, which includes faculty, staff, parents, and other community members, and they develop the school comprehensive education plan. In addition, there’s supposed to be a monthly faculty meeting at each school. And that seems to me to offer the opportunity for faculty members to bring their ideas…to the school administration and upward to the district administration.”

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Fellow trustee Robin Jacobowitz said she would like to see the district make more directed use of ThoughtExchange, a confidential open-ended survey application already used to solicit public feedback by the district. “I thought that we could maybe put something with a few specific questions around curriculum or new initiatives and just get some feedback about how things are going,” she said. “We can shape it so that it’s targeted and specific for this so we would get some kind of community feedback from staff. I would imagine that questions that you would target to parents would be different from questions that you might ask of the staff.” Jacobowitz added that she would also like to see the district continue hosting public forums alongside encouraging staff to share their thoughts and ideas. “I just want to make sure we do it,” she said. “And I’m afraid that if we don’t name different constituencies that we want to reach out to them, we might not.”

Trustee Cathy Collins agreed. “I think that the tool is maybe less important in my mind as the spirit of making sure we’re hearing all of the voices in our community,” Collins said.

Trustee Suzanne Jordan said she felt it was at least important to craft the goal in such a way as to ensure inclusion, even if it didn’t get specific about constituents or methods. 

“Maybe we just need to make sure we’re including all of those stakeholders,” Jordan said. “Because the ThoughtExchange is a venue and maybe they need a variety of venues or techniques or tools, but we don’t really need to name all of these things. It seems like we’re almost trapping ourselves and, and tripping up ourselves, trying to find which way we’re going to ask these questions. I think what the committee, unless I’m wrong, really wanted was good communication between the Board and all of the constituencies and ways of finding that.”

But Shaughnessy said the Board had tried a variety of public forum and open communication options in the past, some more successful than others, particularly those initiated from the community. “In past years, the instances where we have participated in community-sponsored Coffee and Conversation or forums were more effective than Board-initiated Coffee and Conversations, which, you know, you’re sitting in a cafe and three parents show up. I don’t think that’s a very effective use of Board time, or having a table at the farmer’s market and spending four hours there and having two people come up and talk to you.”

Adding a recent wrinkle to the conversation is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has often made traditional public forums difficult. “We’re at a time of COVID,” said Jordan. “So we can’t set up ourselves to be in places that wouldn’t be safe for us to be at, or for other people be invited to.”

One public forum scheduled for Thursday, October 28 will be held via livestream, with the hope of soliciting feedback about how to use the roughly $21.6 million in federal COVID-19 aid. An outdoor welcome event and community forum scheduled last month at Dietz Stadium where the topic was on the agenda was temporarily postponed to prevent community viral spread, but school officials still want to hear from the public. Thursday’s forum — the details of which were not finalized by the time Hudson Valley One went to press — will help. 

“It’s a good opportunity to just to lay out what we’re spending the money on and talk about where we are,” said Superintendent Paul Padalino. “And to let them know the things we’ve accomplished and what we’re looking to accomplish.”

Padalino said he also hopes to hear about summer school experiences, with that program the first in the district funded using pandemic aid.

“I don’t want it to be a kind of catchall forum where people want to talk about, you know, the bus was late,” he said. “I would really like to focus on our funding and what we’re doing and how we’re using it, and if people have questions or experiences.”