NORWICH — The Norwich City School District (NCSD) will be holding their Board of Education (BOE) and budget vote on Tuesday, May 17, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the District Office Boardroom, located at 89 Midland Drive in Norwich.
According to the New York State School Boards Association, eligible voters must be a United States Citizen, 18 years old or older, and must be a resident of the school district for at least 30 days prior to casting their vote.
The NCSD Board of Education is made up of seven members, who will each serve a three-year term. This year, two terms are up for reelection and three candidates are vying for the seats: BOE incumbent Kiernan Hamilton, cvFree Church Lead Pastor and Improve Norwich Now Co-Founder Jen Westervelt, and 39-year teaching veteran Deb Phelps.
According to NCSD BOE President Christopher Olds, the Board of Education largely focuses on fiscal management and district-wide policies, and works closely with the district superintendent, who handles building-level issues.
Olds said those running for an open BOE seat must be a resident of the district for at least a year prior to the election, and must gather at least 100 signatures on a petition. However, candidates do not need any experience in a school setting to run for the board.
"You don’t need any experience at a school district. Everybody brings their own experience whether it’s from business, whether it’s from a variety of different places," said Olds. "Obviously that diversity of thought is important to bring to the board, so that we have all different ideas and perspectives when it comes to being mindful of all the pieces that go into running the school district."
Hamilton is closing out her first term with the NCSD Board of Education and campaigning for her second. As a social worker and therapist, she said one of her main focuses will continue to be on the mental health of students and staff.
"Initially I ran in 2019 because I was concerned about how the school understood mental health and how they understood service delivery, and I felt I could help bring clarity to those things and maybe help in the area of mental health," she said. "We’re a rural, poor district, and the impacts of that plus the pandemic on mental health and emotional needs is really is something I feel like I need to help educate our community about."
Thanks to her career, Hamilton said she's skilled in recognizing "cracks in the system," as well as advocating for those who may be more at risk of falling through those cracks.
"I have this professional training [that's] just so valuable right now, and especially in the school system emotional needs are high," said Hamilton. "Not just in our district, but teachers all over are saying, we do not know how to intervene in these areas. And I know how to do that, I know how to create programming to do that. I know what words to say, and who to contact, and how to do that."
Hamilton said this is something she's already been working on during her current term. She said she's not afraid to speak up about these important issues or start a discussion on difficult topics.
"I do bring up topics that are uncomfortable that I think are not being considered. I provide information to them on how to attack certain issues, just by giving perspective," Hamilton explained. "Like, what is it like to be someone living in poverty and trauma, and then come to school? And what does that mean for a child? What were the impacts of COVID on that specific type of child? That is something that I do regularly."
Her three years serving on the board as she said she understands the scope of what the board can do, their role in the community, and how to make things happen as a board member.
This understanding also ties in with another priority of hers: improving and maintaining communication between the NCSD Board of Education and the City of Norwich community.
"I think that there needs to be community education about what the board can and can’t do," she said. "I think we need to help our community to understand how to become self advocates for serious issues that they have a right to have problems with, and how can they empower themselves to address those issues."
After 14 years of working as a middle school English teacher, 12 of them in Chenango County, Jen Westervelt wanted to give back to her community in a larger way. She became the Lead Pastor of cvFree Church and co-founded Improve Norwich Now, a nonprofit organization that focuses on improving and supporting the Norwich community.
She began attending BOE meetings and speaking during public comment. However, Westervelt said action steps were not being assigned from the insights she provided. After joining several school committees and the Parent-Teacher group, she said she realized her impact would be greatest if she served on the Board of Education.
"In order to effect real, lasting change and best support our students, families, faculty, staff, and community as a whole, I needed to pursue a seat on the Board of Education," said Westervelt. "This way, the voters will have the opportunity to affirm my genuine commitment to see us reach our full potential, and I will be able to more effectively use my voice to represent additional perspectives from our community."
Westervelt said having experience in a wide variety of settings and roles has given her a valuable skill set that would make her an effective member of the board.
"I am running for the board of education because I am really passionate about applying the skill sets and experiences that I have in this particular setting," she said. "There are three areas as a community member, as a mom, as a former educator, that really stand out to me and I feel I could be helpful in effecting positive change in these areas. So those would include school safety, effective communication, and community connection."
She has goals in place for her three key areas, including disciplinary consistency within schools; fostering a safe school environment; accessible and accurate grade reporting for parents; developing links between the BOE and the community, to provide more resources for students, faculty, staff, and the community; and many more.
"I am going into this election with the attitude that I really want to be a team player in affecting our school district in positive ways. I feel that it’s really important to be able to identify the win, but also the areas where we could be doing better," said Westervelt.
"I think we owe it to our students, our faculty, our staff, our community at large, to take action in that way, acknowledge that we must have areas of weakness. Every organization does, every person does. There’s always room for improvement, and so I am going into this with a strong commitment to be genuinely focused on positive change and continuing to do what we’re doing well."
With 39 years of teaching experience, 36 of which were within the Norwich City School District, Deb Phelps is looking to continue her involvement in Norwich schools by running for the Board of Education.
"As I’m coming closer to retirement I still have a big passion for education in Norwich. So that was my initial thought on running for the Board of Education," said Phelps. "I also see some needs for the Board of Education, and I thought maybe I could be a team player and help with the communication and connections between the Norwich City School District and the Board of Education."
She said strengthening this line of communication will create a "healthy school culture" and provide better support to students academically. Supporting the mental health needs of students and staff will also be an area of focus for Phelps.
"One of the goals that I have is for assisting our students with their success and achievement, and allowing them to achieve their highest performance possible. So with that open line of communication between the Board of Education and our staff, I think it will help with a healthy school culture, and I think it’s also going to be important to ensure not only a healthy but a nurturing environment," she said. "We have a lot of students and staff that struggle with mental health. You know, academics are important, but we also need to be sure we’re supporting their mental health needs as well."
Additionally, Phelps is also passionate about exploring other learning areas outside of the standard curriculum, such as STEAM programs and the visual and performing arts.
"We do push a lot of academics in Norwich, and I think it's important to step outside of the box and look at additional areas that include the multiple intelligences such as the area of science, which the STEAM program would assist with," said Phelps. "I’m also a big supporter of the visual and performing arts because, again, I think some of our students really flourish in those areas and they need that opportunity to be able to experience the visual and performing arts because of that."
Phelps also has plenty of experience volunteering and getting involved in the community through her time as a coordinator for Jump Rope for Heart at Norwich schools, a patient advocate with the American Cancer Society, a Norwich Dollars for Scholars board member, and as Treasurer and Vice President of a BMX bike racing board.
She said this experience will be beneficial in fostering a connection between the BOE and the community, which is another of her priorities.
"A real advantage that I think I can bring to the Norwich City School Board is a lot of experience in working with the community," she explained. "That obviously is a goal too, that I feel it’s important to work with the community, and also keep them informed of what’s happening within the school district and what students are doing."